Saturday, March 31, 2007

The African Lion

I wasn't expecting to fall so in love with lions when I went to Kenya. I wasn't a huge big cat fan, as the lions on Discovery channel always killed something, and I was always rooting for the underdog. I wondered how I'd feel about seeing them kill in the wild, knowing they had to eat to survive. As it turns out, I was in love with their society from the second I saw them in the wild.

Their social network of females caring for young, of males offering protection, and of youngsters of all ages, is a true joy to watch. Whether they are organizing a hunting party, competing for the scant shade of one lone bush on the Serengeti, playing games with sticks, or just lazing around, maybe nursing or cuddling, they hold one's interest. I found myself thrilled every time we came across lions, and I spent hours and hours by their side. I was shocked at how close I could come - within a foot. One pregnant lioness liked the shade of the Land Rover and literally laid right next to my door, within easy touching distance.

I was shocked at the feeling I had the first time a lioness looked into my eyes, crouching in a stretch. Some very primitive alarm went off, letting me know that my body was deeply aware on a primitive level that this animal was higher than me on the food chain. Maybe not today, of course, but way back when...and the program is still there. Of course, I pose no threat to them nor they to me as long as I am not wandering alone in the bush or running from them on foot. They did not seem to mind my presence. One mother was off alone, with very young cubs, and I was thrilled that she let me get close enough to hear and see them nurse several times, but she departed whenever other vehicles came by. I was lucky.

When I saw a pride eating a recent zebra kill, it wasn't gross as I thought it would be. It seemed very natural. While I love zebras too, I could see that the pride of more than 10 lions was getting a much needed meal, and in all probability, the zebra they took down was the weakest in its herd, and it's time had come. It's better than suffering a lingering death; the lions kill swiftly. They are not recreational killers like man; they need the meat, and they make good use of it, as well as provide for a host of scavengers when they are done dining.

I lack words to describe the sensation of being near the lions. Although I can't touch them or communicate with them, I loved just being near them and watching their communications with one another, their interactions, and all the little things, like their battle scars. One old female had a thorn in her side and had lost an eye but she was still tough, still surviving. The cubs could not have been cuter. I had my favorites quickly in each group.

I don't think I will get to see lions in Africa this year, as both of my trips don't focus on predator areas, but I'm hoping I come across some. It seems criminal to go to Africa and not visit lions! In the end they were my favorite animals to watch, with elephants being a close second.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Nadia, the Unwanted Mother

Nadia - last cat to be introduced, and last cat to join the family (4 of 4). She arrived as a foster with four newborn kittens, less than 24 hours old. She had been a stray in Boise's North End. She was a good mother, and I used to love to watch her play "the tail game" flicking her tail in a different pattern for each of her children. They got adopted - she did not.

For more than six months I hauled her to PetSmart adoption centers, pushed her via emails, advertised her on cat adoption websites, in the paper, etc. No one wanted her. When potential adopters came, she hid in the basement, but when dinner guests came, she stayed upstairs. Go figure. She knew when we were going to an adoption event, and disappeared, but stuck around for other trips, even the vet.

She adopted 10 kittens of other litters and mothered them. She adored being a mom, so much so it was sad to get her spayed - but there are way too many unwanted pets to allow more to be made. Weaning her from her kittens she used to lay on one side of the door and cry, stretching both arms under the door to touch the babies I wouldn't let her nurse. It was hard on all of us. Now that she's spayed she shows no interest in new batches of foster kittens, but she happily let any of 14 nurse when she still had milk.

She used to rub my ankles in affection each time I brought her home again from failed adoption marketing, as if to ask if she could stay. She got along ok with the other cats and the dogs. She obviously had a home at one point as she knew how to beg at the table for food scraps. Why someone owned her and didn't get her fixed I don't know. She's the only one of my cats who I never knew as a kitten.

Eventually I gave in, of course. I took pity on her, always seeking a home and never finding one, while tons of other foster kittens and cats came and went. We were used to having her, and what's the difference between three and four? She worked her way in.

She doesn't like to cuddle like the others - she is friendly but prefers to be next to you, not on your lap. She's lowest in the pecking order, but doesn't seem to care. She seems to appreciate every meal, and every time she gets let inside from a day of playing outside.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ophelia, the "Temporary" Cat

Ophelia came into my life when I went to PetSmart unsupervised on my way to get pizza for dinner. Let's just say I have a weakness for animals in need. PetSmart had a wall of adoptable kittens...and while I didn't need another one, I couldn't help but notice a very small kitten in bad shape. She was black, but her coat was like a dull gray. She had a leaking eye, and ringworm. She was displayed with cute, healthy kittens in other cages, but she was all alone. The tag on her cage said "Family eaten by coyotes; found under porch, only survivor."

I was going to go home and tell my boyfriend about her and talk him into coming down to see her. At the time, we had Oscar, also a black kitten, about 6 months old then. My boyfriend wasn't interested in getting a second cat, we'd discussed it. She was smaller, and had a tail (his is naturally bobbed). I was going to walk away when she stuck both her paws out and sank her claws into me in a desperate "Don't leave!!" So I adopted her, thinking to myself that I would sneak her home in my purse, and my boyfriend wouldn't notice. Likely he'd only see one cat at a time and I could claim we only had one for a week or two, as long as it took to get her healthy, and then I could find her a permanent home elsewhere. That was my plan.

On the way home I named her Ophelia, as she was screaming and shrieking her objections at being in a box. At home I carefully placed her in my purse, and headed into the house. My boyfriend came out of the house to say hello, and Ophelia picked that moment to meow. I tried to cover it up but I could see he was curious..and then she popped her head out. He looked at her in silence for a moment, and then said "Did you at least get the pizza?" I had. He was a good sport but didn't believe me when I told him she was temporary.

She was deathly afraid of everything but dogs. She loved to be near the dogs. Maybe one protected her when she was alone, I don't know. She ate and ate and ate. She took her ringworm medication, which had to be made by a people pharmacy in a special kitty dosage. After many weeks, she let me hold her. She slowly began to play with toys, to let go of her trauma, to enjoy Oscar's attention and play kitten games with him. I decided she would stay.

She likes to hunt field mice, lay in the sun, and have her tummy rubbed. She adores being in my lap and seems drawn like a magnet to my attempts to red or use my laptop. She has a distinctive voice. In the evening she plays coy games about coming in for the night, driving me crazy. (I have to pretend I'm not interested and wait for her to approach). I can't imagine life without her, and I'm glad that her temporary time with us will be her entire lifespan...which I hope is very long indeed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Callie, Commander of All

Callie is an exceptionally smart Australian Shepherd. In our house, she is the boss of all other animals - no matter how small or large. Luckily she mostly rules with kindness, but it's interesting to see how she decides on a rule and then enforces it. Her rules and mine don't always coincide, but I can trust her to protect the property and the other animals, as well as to keep them in line.

For example, in Callie's Rule Book, her adopted brother Simon (also an Aussie) can bark at the horses and chase them, but if he shows signs of aggression towards them, she will flip him on his back and knock the wind out of him until he behaves. He is allowed to bark at the mailman, but again, any acts perceived by her as aggressive are swiftly dispensed with. Our cats are allowed to play anywhere on the property, but other cats and dogs may come on onto the property only with Callie's express permission and on her terms. Despite this, she is wonderful with foster puppies and kittens, and as gentle as a dog can possibly be.

If Callie were human and had to make a living, I think she would make a good lawyer. Part of this is because of her very obvious rule based decision making, as referenced above. But part is that she finds the loophole in every instruction - a trait in her I so admire, I can't bear to not reward her cleverness. For example, when foster kittens are eating milk and wet cat food off a plate in the kitchen, Callie is warned "Don't you dare touch that plate - it's only for kittens!" And she gets this. So she waits until the kittens leave a sloppy little ring of food on the floor around the plate, and she licks it off the floor, being VERY careful to ensure her tongue does not touch the plate. I have to give her that one - she didn't fail to follow the instruction. Another example: walking in the foothills I often ask her, when she is off leash and up ahead, to get "Off trail" so someone can pass, usually a bike. She will get off, look back at me, and very deliberately step back onto the trail unless I ask her to "Wait" or "Stay." Again, she wins - I failed to give a complete instruction, she didn't fail to follow it. I love those doggy loopholes. She keeps me on my toes.

Callie gets depressed when I travel, and clingy when I return, and each trip seems to take a little out of her, as though she's keenly aware we missed time together and she can't get it back. She makes me keenly aware of it too, and in turn it depresses me. But I can't take her to Africa, or on all business trips, or any trip that involves a sometimes she has to stay here. I plan treats for her while I am away but I know it's not the same. Today I am packing, and she knows, so she is hovering, wondering, I think, what now, if she can come, how long I'll be gone. It puts an edge of sadness on packing.

She loves to come to work with me, especially when we walk there. She loves to ride in the car (the driver's seat is hers when unoccupied by humans). She loves agility, and herding sheep when she gets a chance, and running around playing a game with a dog friend of hers we call the Rabbit Game. (The other dog, a small terrier type dog with big ears, Peta, pretends to be the rabbit and Callie chases her - a game they both love and all humans who watch enjoy). Callie likes having jobs to do, and I wish I had more for her. She loves children so much I once considered having a kid for my dog (luckily I could see this was a bad idea). She is special beyond words - and I am sure there will be stories of her exploits in the posts to come.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Idaho's Mysterious Barn Owl Massacres

Recently I was in Twin Falls, Idaho, and was shocked to discover dead crows everywhere. They appeared to have been poisoned, though I suppose west nile is a possibility. A Twin Falls resident told me that the County or City was actively poisoning the crows due to overpopulation in Twin. Apparently the crows were annoying the humans, and you know what that means..someone comes up with the bright idea of killing them. Nice. Too bad for the crows though, or any dogs or cats who happen to eat the dead birds before their owners notice, or any other birds or animals who inadvertently consume the poison.

As I was heading home towards Boise I counted 15 dead barn owls in the median strip by the Interstate, and a dead hawk. I began to wonder if the poison was really killing birds of prey. I contacted Idaho Fish & Game for information, as well as the Idaho Birds of Prey Center. Certainly if humans were increasing the mortality of birds of prey via poison, I thought someone should look into it.

Fish& Game was nice enough to call me back. While they were not happy about the poisoning of crows, they also said it was not them doing it, and crows aren't protected so there is not much they can do. They are aware of the bird deaths along the interstate and they can't determine the cause yet.

I can see a few birds here and there but every few feet for a long ways I saw these dead barn owls. Apparently, this problem is being studied by a BSU biology professor, and I will be very interested in hearing his results. The owls are dying due to vehicle collisions, and in large numbers, and they are young. Why are they drawn to the Interstate? Why are so many dying? How will this impact populations long term? No one knows yet. But we can't rule out that poison may be entering and affecting the birds nervous systems, whether through pesticides or secondary poisoning from something like the crow killing spree.

You can read recent news articles on the subject here, here, and here. There is also an interesting article on mysterious bird deaths worldwide here.

Now, a note on the's been a bit slow this month, I apologize. It's less than a month until I trek off to Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya for what I hope is some excellent wildlife viewing. However, it comes at a price - working a lot of overtime to get the decks cleared so I can be gone for a few weeks. So, hopefully things will calm down and I can resume more regular posts, but not just yet.

Lastly, let me remind you it is not too late to get your comments into USFWS regarding wolf delisting and listing the polar bear as a protected species. Addresses for both can be foudn in the archive under each species.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Update on the Wolf De-Listing

Last Tuesday the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service held a public hearing to accept testimony on the proposal to de-list the wolves in the Northern Rockies, including Idaho. The hearing, held in Boise, drew nearly three hours of public comment, despite comments being limited to 3 or 2.5 minutes per person. The testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping federal protection for the wolves.

In favor of de-listing were cattlemen, ranchers, Indian tribes, Idaho Legislators, and hunters. Opposing de-listing were wildlife photographers, biologists, environmentalists, conservationists, outdoorsmen, and a wide variety of people from other disciplines, including a few ranchers. I was pleased that the Defenders of Wildlife and National Resources Defense Council made appearances, and the Sierra Club sent notices to members to attend.

My favorite testimony was from an elderly woman who said that she was alive in the 1930's when the government paid people to kill wolves, and she remembered seeing them hanging, dead, until they were all gone. She said if the government allowed that to happen again it would be stupid, and tragic.

The sad thing is that there is a need for federal regulation when State and local government can't be trusted. The best analogy is de-segregation in 1950's Alabama. The Governor of Alabama at the time was a huge proponent of segregation and was elected largely by the KKK and supporters of keeping blacks and whites separate. Coming from a background of years of prejudice against African Americans, many in Alabama were not at all interested in integration of the races - especially not Alabama's outspoken Governor, George C. Wallace.

Butch Otter is outspoken against the wolves, saying he wants to be first in line to kill one. He is prejudiced against the wolves, comes from a background of backward thinking prejudice, and so do the majority of people who elected him when it comes to wolves. (A poll in North Idaho would almost certainly result in overwhelming support to kill all the wolves). He cannot be trusted to ensure protection of the wolves, nor can the Idaho Legislature, which has already supported hunting tags at less than $10 each and passed a resolution supporting the elimination of wolves altogether.

De-listing other species does not result in people waiting in line to kill them. This is a unique situation and one that the federal government seems woefully unprepared to deal with, as their criteria for de-listing fails to take into account plans of humans to eradicate the species once it loses protection.

On the one hand, I wonder how much public input will matter. In many cases, public hearings appear to be a show designed to make the public believe it has input, when in fact the decision has already been made in a back room. One certainly gets the impression the decisions has already been made to de-list wolves. But, we can't decline to participate in the political process because it may be rigged - that's the equivalent of not voting, and it's silly. You have to start with the vehicles in place to effectuate change, and you have to start with participation - ideally on as may levels as possible.

Written comments on the proposal can be submitted until May 9, 2007 via email to or via mail to USFWS, 585 Shepherd Way, Helena, MT 59601.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Love Wolves? Come Comment on Their Behalf

On Tuesday, March 6th, you have an opportunity if you live in Boise, Idaho to learn about and comment on the Federal Government proposal to de-list wolves. If you haven't followed earlier blog posts on this, check the archive or the tag list under "wolves" or "endangered species."
The meeting will be from 3 to 5pm at the Boise Convention Center on the Grove, 850 W. Front Street, Boise, ID, with public comments from 6pm to 8pm. You can submit written comments or speak (likely only for 2-3 minutes, so bringing prepared written comments would be helpful).
It's a controversial topic so it will be interesting to see how it is run to keep factions from boiling over, and whether it appears a decision has already been made and the "public input" is just for appearance sake. If you support wolves and can make it, the presence of non-wolf haters would be much appreciated.