Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Saturday, February 25, 2017

That Rabbit is Dynamite

As a first-time owner of a rabbit I am once again a student, learning about my animal and her unique blend of wildness and docility. 

     It all started with a photo my friend, a veterinary nurse, posted on her Facebook page: she'd successfully placed an endotracheal tube in a rabbit under anesthesia for a spay surgery. Placing a tube is quite a feat in an animal with a very narrow mouth. "She's up for adoption," my friend teased when I commented on the photo. Yeah, right. No way was I going to get a rabbit. Rabbits scare me as patients because of their fragility, especially under anesthesia. As pets, they intrigued me but did not promise the kind of companionship you'd expect from a more traditional pet like a dog or cat. I have kept degus in the past and know how lovely these animals can be, but had never contemplated keeping a rabbit. Something about this rabbit caught my eye and my heart. She had an exceptionally beautiful coat (yes, I admit I fell in love with her looks before I got to know her), and even in her unconscious state she looked proud and regal. When my husband and I went to meet her at the SPCA shelter she showed polite interest, but otherwise went about her business without getting too excited. She nipped us through our clothes in a light and non-vicious way that meant she was treating us like other rabbits, a democratic and openminded attitude. On the drive home she was curious, kept trying to explore the car, and peed in my husband's lap, which I assured him was a sign of affection and acceptance. (In truth I don't know if it was a sign of anything more than peeing in his lap. This rabbit does not speak in metaphors.) 

     We wanted her to have the run of the apartment, but after a few "accidents" on the bed which were not accidents at all, and after she shorted out my Mac by biting through the cord despite a thick layer of duct tape, we decided to cordon off an area of the living room for her abode. Our crappy old futon turned out to be the best setup: there's a sort of tunnel behind it that she uses for galloping, resting, and deconstruction work. You have no idea how much foam stuffing fits into a couch until a rabbit removes it for you, over and over and over. (I'm reminded of Stephen King's story The Cookie Jar, but I'll stop before I go down that rabbit hole.) As I would sit typing on my laptop, the rabbit would work with fierce dedication, pulling and shaking and stomping as she kicked the liberated stuffing out of the way. Often it felt like she would chomp into my backside any second, or that her head would emerge from a hole right next to me. The laminate floor had to be covered in a mat to give her traction for jumping and binkying (a mid-air shimmy unique to rabbits and hares). The makeshift wall of this compound is 30 inches high, and while she's never jumped over it while we were watching, we know very well that she does this in our absence. We know this from the little puddles and caches of turds she has sometimes left in the bathroom, and from fresh toothmarks on appliances cords. Duct tape only seems to attract her attention to them; it really is one of her favourite desserts, second only to a pair of old leather boots she devoured on one of her walkabouts. (There goes the herbivore myth.) The most touching aspect of these prison breaks is that she's always back in her run in time for our return. It's as if she knows that we expect her to be there and does not wish to defy us too openly while still having her fun. Once I caught her nosing around just outside the wall, and she hurried to get back, exquisitely aware that she was in the wrong. With no traction on the laminate, she simply hopped up to the wall and did a vertical takeoff. I had trouble believing my eyes until I recalled that her short muscular legs are practically spring-loaded. We've ordered a foldable fence to replace the makeshift wall, but other than closing the rooms' doors to keep her from eating electronics, we're not terribly upset about these forays. An animal this smart deserves its moments of secret naughtiness.

     I'm aware I've been calling her "rabbit" without giving her name. "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names," wrote Confucius, and while I don't pretend to be wise in this matter, I'd like to at least avoid utter silliness. I just can't think of a name for her that's not stupid, either too tame or too pompous. Officially she is Tilly, but hardly ever call her that. She's addressed as bun-bun, or by the affectionate Russian word for "hare," zaika, a word with a zing of mischief.

     Getting her accustomed to the outdoors has been a true eye-opener. Rather, she did not need to get accustomed but only reminded of what she already knew. From her behaviour I'm guessing that she grew up in a semi-feral state and learned to forage for what grows in the wild. On her hopabouts she ignores her favourite house food (timothy hay, carrots, lettuce) and goes for the seemingly blah mosses, ferns, and old dead leaves. That was when I realized that there are two natures inside her: a house pet with an array of favourite foods and a capacity for affectionate attention, and a wild animal who sees me as a threat to her freedom. She moves from one state to the other by degrees---spending more and more time under the bushes, running faster and faster along her circle routes---but once the transition is complete, it can be alarming to watch. On several occasions I found myself chasing a wererabbit, a creature frantic to get away and hide. I'm not sure how much of it is mischief and play on her part, and how much---a genuine longing to return to the wild and to be left alone. The very reason I chased her was because she'd found the resourcefulness to free herself. She doesn't mind wearing a harness and can run like a demon in it, but as soon as she realized that the nylon string attached to it was being used to gain control of her when it was time to go home, she learned to bite through the string. In fact, she showed me just how she did this by cutting through a freshly-attached string while I watched. The gesture was so contemptuous and yet so honest that it left me floored. She simply couldn't be bothered to wait, or to do it on the sly. With this new development we've decided to take a break from the outdoors until we find string she can't bite through (halibut line?) or until we get a fence set up on our recreational acreage. Even then I'll have to watch her like a hawk to make sure an eagle doesn't scoop her up. This is not conducive to writing the Great Canadian Novel, but I might manage a series of lesser Canadian short stories during my breaks.

     Our journey together has only begun, and already a few stereotypes have taken a tumble. There is nothing timid or indecisive about this animal. While there are no rabbits in Russian folklore, their close cousin the hare is fabled for cowardice. If that's not an example of old folk wisdom pulled out of the derriere, I don't know what is. Monty Python were far closer to the truth with their own exaggeration: there isn't a cowardly bone in a hare's or rabbit's body. They crouch, they go into hiding when they sense danger, they press their ears close to their head, and they sniff and watch and wait. This is not cowardice, not even shyness, and certainly not indecision. It's the extreme caution of a prey species that has to be smarter than the predator who wants to eat it. 

     Yet for all that, rabbits are vulnerable as hell. They are probably the only pet who is also an accepted food species, a duality that leaves them open to carelessness and disregard on the part of people. My husband grew up with rabbits kept as meat animals (the "poor man's pig"), and while his duty was to feed and shepherd them and clean their cages, he was implicitly discouraged from developing emotional attachments. I see a look of happy disbelief on his face when he plays with our rabbit, an animal not meant to be eaten but only to be loved. Rabbits are the most likely pet to get abandoned and simply turned out to fend for themselves, and probably the least likely to be adopted from a shelter. Much like parrots, they turn out to be far more intelligent and demanding than the unprepared person counts on, and their tantrums and misery come as a shock to those who expect a cute innocent wittle bunny. They are capable of growling, of slamming people with their hands and pounding the floor with their feet, and of ripping things to shreds. They apologize for nothing, and they look longingly at no one. Why doesn't Disney teach kids about any of this? 


Thursday, December 22, 2016

"But why don't you write about animals..?"

Because of my primary occupation many friends and acquaintances quite understandably assume that my fiction is about animals, and I probably disappoint many of them when I say that it's not. Who doesn't love to read about adorable critters, even if said critter is a grizzly bear or a hippopotamus? In this sense I am a consumer but not a creator, at least not in any direct sense. One might say I have a duty to transform my knowledge of animals into words and share it with the world. Only, here's the rub: I know just enough about them to realize I have no business speaking in their voices, not in a work of fiction. I know just enough to maintain a healthy respect for an alien inner world I cannot begin to glimpse.

Yet in another sense I do write about animals, at least about what we can and should learn from them even if we can never fully understand their inner workings. The cliché of comparing a cruel or uncouth person to an animal is fortunately dying a death of old age, and so are the more flattering but just as desperately anthropomorphic expressions like "brave as a lion" (not that I question the bravery of lions). There are very few things I can say with certainty about wild or feral animals, but here is one that strikes me as particularly important: they do not complain. And this particular feature is responsible for an idea that led to saving a life in my novella "Killer of a Mind." I think that crow just might fly. Here is an excerpt from the story, modified to remove spoilers. 

       Now what? Go to the policia and explain in broken Spanish how one drunken gringo had tried to kill another? The whole thing was surreal, a Kafka story set in the paradise of the Mayan Riviera. A story that just might earn Ryan a cell in a Mexican madhouse if not a prison. Besides. There wasn’t a shred of evidence to support what had happened last night, and no witnesses who saw the two of them after they’d left the town. The crime was so perfect it was almost a shame it hadn’t happened. No, going to the authorities was out of the question. Yet Ryan knew he needed to do something. At the very least he needed to worry. The man who almost became his friend had wanted him dead, and this was the kind of man who followed through on what he wanted.
     Ryan locked his room and ran through the courtyard to hop on the raggedy-ass rental bike before anyone could see it there. This was of course a silly fear seeing as dozens of raggedy-ass rental bikes waited on the streets of Tulum as their riders shopped or sat in cafes. But as a fugitive Ryan expected the world to set its searchlights on him. He mounted the bike and screeched off toward the intersection, planning to cross the main street and ride toward the ocean; there was a patch of jungle just outside Tulum where he meant to hide the bike before making a dash for Cancun and the airport. He needed to be careful even on this short ride because his new almost-friend could come walking into him any second. 
      Suddenly Ryan became furious with himself. He’d done nothing wrong, so why was he the one hiding like a rat in a hole? Because the catcher would come no matter where he chose to hide. This would never end with Tulum; he’d been a damn fool to think it could. Tulum would follow him to Vancouver, and his dear almost-friend would track him down and come after him. No matter how big your world was, here in Mexico it became a very small one, just big enough to hold what you needed to survive. And once it became small, it stayed that way no matter where you went.  
       Ryan pedalled backwards and came to a screeching stop. Two Mayan women looked at him in surprise that turned into shy mirth. The little Mayans laughed easily, bless their hearts. And well they could. Ryan smiled sheepishly at the women and turned the bike around. He was in no state to ride anywhere or make decisions about anything more important than taking a piss. Go back to the hotel? What if his almost-friend decided to pay him a visit, if only to establish himself as the concerned friend before raising the alarm? No, he couldn’t go there until he had a better idea of what to do. But first, food. Now that the flight response had been replaced with a fight plan, or at least a plan to make a plan, he realized he was weak and stupid with hunger.   
       At first he had to force himself to chew and swallow the food, but after a few mouthfuls his body admitted its need and rejoiced at the help it was getting. He’d chosen a little eatery for locals on a quiet street unfrequented by tourists. The proletarian-grade tacos were the most delectable food he’d eaten in his life. A tomcat observed Ryan from its throne on a pile of rubble across the street. It was a small and lean animal with crusts around its eyes, but it made like a lion to whom the world could do no wrong. Ryan threw the cat a piece of tortilla smeared in sour cream and watched it pick up its prize and walk off to hide from the bother and envy of other animals. He recalled how years ago his college roommate’s cat had stared at him in profound indignation as he unsnagged its claw from the bug screen. The cat had been swatting flies, banging the screen with its hands until it got hooked. “I meant to do that,” it seemed to say when Ryan freed it from its mute embarrassment. Back then he almost peed himself laughing at the cat’s helpless valiance. And yet, millions of years of evolution couldn’t be wrong. Animals did the opposite of complaining because that was how they survived. By the way, what was the opposite of complaining? People didn’t have a word for that; it wasn’t a people thing to do. People carried on about whatever ailed or bothered them because that was how they reminded the world that they counted for something. Animals protected themselves by keeping quiet, downplaying their injuries and weaknesses, denying them altogether. Denying them..?
     Something in the storage room of Ryan’s memory shifted and fell off its shelf. He couldn’t see what it was, but he knew where to find it. It was in the book he’d been reading, the play Gaslight. Something written on the margins was going to save his life. Back at his hotel twenty minutes later Ryan was witnessing the birth of an idea. The idea was all his, but its birth was helped along by a stray cat and two dead people. One of them had written the play in his hands, the other—the pencil notes on the margins. They say that behind every crime there’s a woman. This woman, the nameless writer of the marginalia, had inspired something more interesting than even the perfect crime: the victim’s comeback.
      The perfect denial that a crime had happened.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fallout from the Quest for Gold: Update.

Since my initial post on the problem of moose trapped in abandoned telegraph wire in the Northwest of Canada I have published a short article in the West Coast Veterinarian magazine and given two interviews to CBC Radio Yukon--one in French, one in English. (I'm happy to say my French doesn't suck completely after twenty years of disuse.)

Article (page 34) https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/west-coast-veterinarian-magazine-fall-2016
Interview in French https://soundcloud.com/iciyukon/ces-fils-qui-tuent-les-orignaux-la-veterinaire-veronica-gventsadze-denonce
Interview in English https://soundcloud.com/cbcyukon/bc-vet-calls-for-backcountry-clean-up

My current task is to prepare an environmental petition addressed to the federal government of Canada. Technically such a petition does not require any signatures, but these will certainly not hurt. If you are Canadian and interested in signing, please contact me through this blog and I will include you on my mailing list.

While I continue to work with companion animals on a professional level, this past year has brought the plight of wild animals close to my heart. There is much sadness to be found on this road, but also a healthy kind of balance that puts the entire living world in better perspective.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Son of a Bird

A baby bird sat on the lawn of the Saanich farm where I stay during my locums in Sidney, BC. He’d turned his head to look at me without fear or alarm, a gray and confident creature in plain sight of any cat who might wander across the lawn. I saw him seconds after wondering why I’d walked to that particular corner of the ten-acre property with sheep pens and vegetable garden and fruit orchard and berry patch. He showed no surprise when I picked him up and wasted no time in opening his lemon-yellow beak to ask for food. He fit in the palm of my hand, being about the size of a large mouse. He was not a particularly good-looking animal, kind of like a small plucked hen with pink skin showing through his very sparse feathers and white fluff on his head and back; but his wings and tail already had the straw-like beginnings of flight feathers. I had no idea how deeply I’d fall in love with him in the weeks to come. From the speckles on his chest I saw he was a thrush, and overnight (or so it seemed) the cream of his chest turned to the pale orange of a robin: American robin, or Turdus migratorius. Little Turdus was to be one of his names, the others being Birdy, Birdity (because if humanity, why not birdity?) Sir Robin, and Mr Plitch (although he did his business noiselessly). He was a perfectly healthy and normal bird who’d fledged his nest at about ten days of age and would have been fed by his parents by day while taking shelter in the bushes by night. Would have, except that the lawn was patrolled by too many cats for a happy ending. I took his little life in my hands with the intent to finding the nearest wildlife rehab centre and taking him there in the morning. My husband, who grew up with birds, persuaded me to keep and raise him, but in truth I didn’t need much persuading: it was more like receiving permission to do what I already wanted to do. I had never kept birds before, caged or wild ones, and neither disliked nor actively liked them. As a veterinarian I am wary of their fragility and heightened vulnerability to harm. But here I had a healthy animal who wanted to eat—and eat, and eat. On the first evening I dug up earthworms and some kind of grubs from the compost of the vegetable garden and fed these to him with the aid of tweezers. This was not ideal as the edges of the tweezers were sharp and apt to injure his mouth. In the morning, having fed him in response to loud and insistent squaking, I took him to work in a blue recycling hamper and used a hemostat as an artificial beak to deposit food in his gaping maw. For the next couple of weeks the hemostat was his wet-nurse.

I am aware that it’s illegal to take and raise a wild baby bird. The spirit of this largely non-enforceable law is to protect wildlife from well-meaning but often ignorant and misguided intervention of humans. In this video a wildlife veterinarian explains the difference between a healthy bird who should be left alone and one who might need our help: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6APirR4dpyU  Mother Nature really does know best. The trouble is, a cat is not part of Mother Nature here in North America; it is a beloved but invasive species living under the protection of the mother of invasive species. Since taking this robin into my life, the problem has become a very personal one for me and had torn me apart. I continue to love cats and to go gaga over their antics and their amazing nature. And I continue to be puzzled and saddened by the completely unnecessary standoff I witness over and over. It is believed by too many people that if you love cats, you will deny that they kill birds in any significant number, or you will shrug this off as unfortunate but acceptable consequences of the cat’s roaming. Conversely, if you insist on protecting birds and keeping cats indoors, then you must be a cat-hater. But there is no need to be on either side of this barbed-wire fence that should be torn down. I have met many people in my line of work who love both cats and birds and who strive for fairness in their own and their pets’ interaction with nature. Fairness means minimizing the unfair disadvantages that a wild animal faces. A hawk or an owl is a fair disadvantage for a robin, fair evolutionary pressure that has been “agreed upon” over millennia. A cat is not. There are simply no two ways about this. Outdoor cats cannot peacefully coexist with birds any more than the lion can lie with the lamb; not in this world. Imagine that a race of aliens has descended on Earth, aliens about the size of elephants. Imagine them falling in love with lions and deciding to keep these animals as pets. Now imagine them letting the lions out of their dwellings to walk about our streets and gardens. The lions are well fed by their alien owners and do not need to hunt for that reason. The aliens have nothing against us and many feel sad that their pet lions eat a human here and there; but that’s just how it is. So, would you feel safe leaving your home? Exactly. The other day I met Bertie, a fine specimen of a cat who brought his owner a bird he’d caught. What’s remarkable about that? This: Bertie had both his eyes removed due to untreatable glaucoma. Even in the strange surroundings of the exam room this eyeless wonder moved around with the grace and confidence of a small lion. And if blind Bertie can do it...  Cats will kill, they are born to do so, and not because of hunger or because they are naughty or evil, but because it is their nature to hunt. Many formerly outdoor cats have been successfully converted (http://catsandbirds.ca/research/tips-for-transitioning/), and many more have not been accustomed to going outside in the first place. Keeping a cat busy at home, with toys and plenty of interaction, is the recipe to its happiness: https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats   But if you strongly believe that your cat cannot be happy without going outdoors, I will not try to talk you out of it. Logic rarely works if you have no deep and personal reason to change your mind. I too used to own a cat who I believed was much happier outside and who was a competent hunter, and this did not bother me nearly enough, not until my relationship with birds became personal. My cat paid for her freedom, and for my decision, by dying in the jaws of a coyote. Here is an article that comes from the mind and heart of a cat owner and bird lover:
So instead of presenting more facts and figures, I am making an unashamed appeal to the emotions. I personally do not believe in karma, but it appears to be an immensely popular concept, so I will invoke it as well. I am asking for fairness toward birds and wildlife as well as to cats, for an effort to strike a balance between the interests of both. For this to happen, I invite you to make it personal, to raise a young bird if you have not done so before. What for? For the simple reason that the more creatures we can learn to love, the more worlds we can live in during our short time on this earth. Do it for your sake if not for the birds’. Raising this robin has added a new life to the one I have known, a new pair of eyes and ears, maybe even a new brain, more patient and calm and focused on what’s before me. 
Birdy was born fully competent at living and every day he discovered in himself a new skill. When it seemed that he would never eat except if fed with the hemostat, on the next morning he started picking up worms put before him on the floor, then to hunt out his own. When it seemed that he was capable only of baby chirps, suddenly and without rehearsal he sang a quiet little song in response to a robin recording I played for him. He was at once innocent and mischievous, helpless and cunning.  Although not a religious person, I was reminded of Matthew 6:26: "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them." This passage is not about birds’ laziness or lack of planning skills—although given the chance, the robin would work as little as possible for his food, for animals are hard-wired to save energy. It is about their primal confidence in their place here, their trust in the world’s cooperation. In this they resemble their close yet such distant relatives the reptilians. I was permitted to observe the life of a tiny dinosaur with wings for arms and soft feathers for scales, to watch him grow and come into his own. (I am fairly certain that it was a male from the indignant chatter and beak-clacking he would raise at his reflection in the mirror.) Yet in contrast to their evolutionary ancestors, everything in a bird’s body and its entire life is quickened instead of slowed down. Metabolism is fast, and their bodies are warm like little furnaces. Life is fast and often all too short. 

I will never be where he was able to go as soon as he could fly, high up into the trees and the sky beyond. He must have wondered why I didn’t just take flight and meet him on his chosen branch: it was so easy! I hope he understood that his adoptive mother was monstrously misshapen, disabled, and spoke with a hideous accent; I hope he did not mistake me for his kin. Time and time again he brought himself down to my level. 

Guiding his eating habits was largely a work of trial and error helped along by research and observation. At certain times it seemed that he was being picky and bratty, refusing to eat things that were good for him such as earthworms, berries. This usually happened after he was fed his fill of his favourite food, mealworms. The larger, the better. A little research and deductive reasoning showed that he was not being a spoiled brat but rather that his digestive system quickly lost the enzymes needed to process certain foods, and together with them the appetite for these foods. A bird’s metabolism is super-fast, and a young growing bird’s metabolism is even faster. Their gut flora changes with the foods they eat, and those changes happen very quickly. Dropping the desired foods in his gaping maw gave him a “stomach” for them again, and on the next day he would eat them of his own accord. I learned not to be afraid to hand-feed him well after he could eat on his own, confident that he would not lose the skills he had acquired. And it was after these feeding sessions that he showed spurts of independence, hopping off to forage on the forest floor for his own food. Allowing him to get hungry in the hope that he would hunt more was a bad idea: all it did was drain him of the energy and will to do much of anything. His output was prodigious, and delivered without warning albeit at regular intervals. But, get this—my Birdy's shit didn’t stink. Not even a bit. And the bird himself had the generic fragrance of a newly-washed baby, a very similar scent across the species.   
In the beginning I put pressure on him and myself to see to it that he became wild as soon as possible. I felt frustration and defeat when he refused or failed to fly off and hunt on his own, resenting his dependence on me as a heavy burden of responsibility and guilt. I felt both loss and hope when he flew off for the first time, and prepared myself for either of two outcomes. I hoped he had joined that other world irreversibly, the world where animals want nothing from humans. I suspected he was not ready for it. And when an hour later we found each other by calling back and forth, I was full of relief and joy. And since then we spent many hours and days in this dance of letting go and then finding each other’s voices. Thus for a while he lived in two worlds, going forth into the forest and coming back to human care and protection and the laundry basket lined with moss that was his bedroom in our home. I hoped he would spend more and more time in the wild where he belonged, but I was wracked with doubt and fear. What if we’d messed him up—what if he tried to bring our human world into the world of birds, confusing other robins away from himself  instead of learning from them? I hoped that his instincts were stronger than his upbringing. I know he would not have survived if I hadn't picked him up; he did not stand a chance against the roaming cats. What I don't know is if he was meant to survive even if he hadn't ended up on the ground, or if the area was free of cats. On average an American robin lives only a couple of years.  Most newborn robins—three quarters—do not survive their first year at all. Those who do, live about five or six years. But his fledging the nest and falling to the ground could have been a sign of initiative rather than helplessness, and he could be one of the 25% who are destined to survive and maybe to live a long life, in which case only the presence of cats and myself derailed his normal upbringing and his entire fate. After a few days of existential turmoil I settled into the self-contentment of motherhood and no longer beat myself up for doting on him. 

Humility before nature is the cornerstone of our future as a species, if we are to have a future. But humility can only take us to a point beyond which we do not know what it’s like to be an animal and to live its life. Beyond that point we must give ourselves permission to feel human, i.e. masters of animals who exist for our benefit because they come under our protection. We need that flotation device in these uncharted waters at the interface of human and animal lives, the place where the human-animal bond is born. And as much as we’re taught to wince at the word “master” and condemn it for political incorrectness, we must acknowledge the truth of our position. The purpose and the significance of this little bird’s life had been changed through my intervention. The only thing I could say with certainty is that he lived to bring me joy, and I took responsibility for this decision. I studied up on his species, their behaviour and diet, the things they like and dislike, and to the best of my ability I arranged for him to exercise his instincts. But did I do what was best for him? I will never know. I told myself that if he got scooped up by a hawk moments after rubbing his soft warm neck on my hand to clean his beak, his life would still have been worth every moment. Nothing I did would have been in vain. Death is promised and guaranteed, and this story was guaranteed to end sadly. We would have lost him one way or another, either to an accident or sudden predation or to freedom in a wild state from which he would write us no letters. But certainties like death and loss cannot define a life. Each moment of his life witnessed by us has a significance it could not have if he’d lived as a wild bird.

It was a miracle and a gift that he allowed me to pick him up and carry him on my arm, his little warm feet curled around my wrist and his tiny claws tickling my skin. It was a miracle and a gift that he spoke and replied to me, and trusted me to care for him. He owes me no gratitude; I owe it to him, although as an animal he does not deal in this currency. Such miracles and gifts are fragile and cannot last, and so our bird left us just as we were settling into the cozy idea of keeping him over the winter till next spring. The bond between us was broken on his part but not on ours. During our last two days with him, his habits of returning to me and responding to my voice started wavering until they vanished like the morning mist, and his wild instincts took over and carried him away. I saw the warning signs, the impending goodbye, but could not picture my life without him—until I had no choice. I ought to be happy for his freedom, and for my own freedom from responsibility, but instead I feel abandoned and saddened by fear. Is he safe? Is he even alive, having flown off in a suburban area with many roaming cats? Does he have the social skills to get along with other robins, to understand their language? One minute his warm little body was coddled in the sentiments we'd been foolish enough to let loose, the next minute he passed into the unknown. Dead or alive, our robin is somewhere out there, still ours, unique among the billions of other robins. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fallout from the Quest for Gold

A century after the gold fever changed the landscape of British Columbia, Alaska, and Yukon, the lust for this metal continues to kill. But this time it’s galvanized iron that’s doing the deadly work. A network of telegraph lines was built at the turn of the twentieth century using wire that does not corrode or crumble. The sad irony of its durability is that when wire sags or falls to the ground, either from trees falling on it or due to collapse of the original poles, it ends up in the perfect position to snag and trap moose (and cariboo further north). My husband came upon this silent tragedy as he foraged for lobster mushrooms east of Sand Lake in the Nass Valley north of Terrace, BC. Trained as an electrician, he recognized the type of wire right away: number 8 galvanized wire about 5 millimeters thick. On a one-kilometer stretch of abandoned telegraph line he found three moose skeletons tangled in the wire, some older and covered in moss and others more fresh. He wanted to cry, and was glad I was not with him to see the devastation.

In our research aided by Bill Miller’s “Wires in the Wilderness” we identified this stretch of telegraph line as part of the Stewart branch of the Yukon Telegraph built in 1910-1911. From this book I was shocked to learn that the problem of wildlife entrapment in abandoned wire has been known at least since 1941. The wire, a small segment of which I saw myself closer to the highway, is bright and shiny as on the day it was installed. The metal used to galvanize it is toxic enough to cut an inch-wide swatch of bare soil through the mossy forest floor. Having no camera or cell phone on him my husband was unable to document what he found, but the picture in an article from September 2015 is representative. WARNING: while not graphic per se, the photo is heartrending. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/moose-caught-in-telegraph-wire-euthanized-by-yukon-wildlife-officer-1.3228290

This moose in Yukon was put out of his suffering relatively quickly, but countless others die slow agonizing deaths that will continue as long as the wire remains on the ground. Reading this article brought me mixed feelings of sorrow and relief - sorrow to realize how widespread this problem is, and relief to know that efforts, no matter how slow and inadequate, are being made to correct it. Misery loves not so much company as solidarity. On my part I shall work to bring the problem to the attention of the media and the BC government, and if it comes to that - maybe organize a volunteer campaign to go into the bush and remove the wire. On your part you can help by spreading the word, and if you have experience with this or similar issues, please share it or help me get in touch with people who might be willing to help. Let’s join forces, and I will keep you, my readers, appraised of the developments.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Show and Tell: Pelion, and a Cat's-Eye View of England

Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words must have had some seriously chatty friends not keen on taking photos. But there is truth behind every exaggeration. In this post I'm letting pictures of our recent trip to Pelion (Greece) and London do most of the talking. At the above rate of conversion, it's probably one of the longest blog posts out there.

Unlike much of Greece, the Pelion peninsula is lush and green from the many creeks and waterfalls carrying melting snow from Mount Pelion. We visited this area during the off season and before most of the hotels and guesthouses had opened, and although this left the village of Agios Ioannis looking somewhat like a ghost town, it was eerily pleasant to have the beaches to ourselves.

The water off the Aegean coast of Pelion is very clear, but strangely enough there is no algae in the sea, and none washed up on the shore. The colour variations in the rock of this grotto are quite something. The black horizontal streaks are dried oil from a spill (several, actually) that happened some twenty years ago.
"Networking" has a different meaning on Pelion. The entire peninsula is crisscrossed with stone paths built some five hundred years ago for donkey transport. No cement was used to hold the stones in place; they were simply driven into the ground. Ridges of taller stones make a sort of ladder for the donkeys' hooves. The animals have been replaced with trucks, but the paths will last at least another five hundred years, and are great for hiking from anywhere to just about anywhere else on the peninsula. The piles of manure (not shown) on the paths around larger towns are not from donkeys but from horses who get hired out to tourists. For some reason it is assumed that tourists do not care for donkey rides, although I would have loved to go on one.

This donkey living in a meadow outside Volos is one of the few that remain on Pelion. She is kept more as a pet than for practical purposes, has plenty to eat, and, being a highly intelligent animal, is easily bored. After the first introduction she would greet our approach with loud braying.

The forests of Pelion are cool and shady, especially along the banks of streams. This bridge outside the village of Tsagarada is a couple of hundred years old. The Roman arch technique is amazing in its reliability: the vertically-placed stones outlining the arch are wedged tightly against each other under the weight of the bridge. There is no way this structure can crumble, since there is nowhere for the stones to fall.

Sweet cold water flows from a spring into the basin of a waterhouse. Everywhere along Pelion’s roads there are small stone grottos with a faucet. Even the lion has been recruited. 

Now that’s a giant peacock moth to end all moths. We were very glad to find resting on the grass in an olive orchard. It was there early in the morning and it was still there seven hours later as we returned from our hike, a welcome and a farewell to a day in the hills.

This fellow was barked up the pole by two rather impolite dogs (who fortunately followed us and left him alone). Like any cat caught in great embarrassment, he desperately wished we’d go away.

A fog bank rolls toward land in the early morning. On hot days moisture evaporates from the sea and condenses overnight into fog that reaches the hills and seeps along gorges. The mist usually clears by midday if the sun is working well. There were no ghosts inside it, but I can see why the Greeks pictured Hades as souls of the dead poking around in a fog. It is a place of coldness and confusion.


This very pregnant lady came to the door of our condo and appointed us as her providers, but remained independent between meals. Unlike many stray animals in Greece, she approached us without hesitation or fear. We don’t know what awaits her and her kittens, but we’re glad our journeys crossed and we could give her affection, if only for a short time.

Seven years ago my husband came to Pelion for the first time with the assumption that it is arid and has no trees. As a German who can't stop working on holiday and who will not be stranded without material for his carvings, he brought with him from Canada a large bag of wood pieces. Then he met a few centuries-old platans in the village of Tsagarada. If trees could laugh...

I don’t know the name of this tree, but it seems to live in two seasons, with last fall’s berries right next to this spring’s blossoms.

Sunrise on the Aegean sea happens very fast, as if the sun is making a running start before slowing down for its daily traverse.

Peter and a tomcat share a moment of male bonding. But not without some disagreement over who has the sexier moustache.

The lovely turquoise waters off Damouchari beach.

Pelion's little narrow gauge-train that could, and did.

On this visit to London I met Benjamin the cat who was drawn to church by the holy spirit - a very warm and comforting holy spirit. No wonder Benjamin raised a howl when I interrupted his devotions. It made for rather interesting acoustics.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

To End All Wars

Today is a day to reflect on the meaning of World War I and to make sense of the lives lost in the horror that was supposed to end all wars. When I was younger I rebelled against the words "hero," "service" and "sacrifice" in a context where people - and animals used in war - had no choice in the matter. I was enraged by the arrogance that permitted humans to drag innocent animals into a carnage of their making. Now that I'm getting old(er), I have come to realize that a sacrifice need not be voluntary; most, in fact, are not. But I still insist that it must not be wasted, and today I have been reflecting on what this means.

At this point it is customary to show your credentials. Russia pulled out of WWI to attack itself and thereby made it much easier on Germany (a bad thing to do), but my grandfather served in the Soviet air force during WWII (a good thing to do), so these contributions even themselves out. This says absolutely nothing about my own virtue or glory. My grandfather taught me how to be systematic and not make empty promises, but I did not defend Moscow in December 1941. My husband, born and raised in Germany, had no hand in starting WWII. We both left behind the countries of our birth because of irreconcilable differences with them, and because Canada really is unique in its benevolence and capacity to bring out the best in people. Still, I don't wear a poppy on this day: as the literal-minded person I am, I must first figure out exactly what it means.

It is common knowledge that as a Russian in WWII my grandfather fought for freedom and against evil. Interestingly enough, so did my husband's grandfather, a fighter pilot with the Wehrmacht - so he was told, so he believed. Everyone wants freedom, everyone knows it's a good thing. The word works miracles, for better and for worse. This magic word is indispensable if you're going to put the burden of an emperor's wayward madness on working grunts and have them destroy working grunts of a different nationality. If your emperor won't give you freedom while you live, you can at least die wishing for it and blaming a foreign land for taking it away. Those other guys had it right: World War I was supposed to end all wars. It didn't, and there will likely be more. The best I can wish for is that we stop dragging freedom into this sordid affair to make it look prettier than it is.

The nature of today's wars is already very different. We may not be dying for our country or even someone else's, but a distant war is never entirely foreign to us. What worries me is the carelessness with which Canada is extending its naive benevolence to victims of the war in Syria. Such promises are not to be made lightly; these people are not an opportunity for us to feel pleased with ourselves. I am afraid Canada is unprepared for such a commitment because I see on each volunteer trip to a First Nations reserve how badly it has failed to understand a different culture already living here, and to coexist with it into the present day. To this day the white man is simply afraid to speak to native folk as to grown people, preferring to treat them as perpetual children to be placated rather than taken seriously. To assume that the newcomers will just melt with gratitude in the warm glow of our benevolence is nothing short of arrogance, a 21st century version of the white man's superiority. I do not know what the practical solution to this is, but I firmly believe that charity begins at home, and must be our priority until the very word "charity" becomes obsolete.