Saturday, April 14, 2007

Off to Visit Relatives: Primates

I'm sure baboons are pesky - they are certainly not well liked by the people who live around them. Known to kill dogs and make a mess of vegetable gardens, steal things off clotheslines, and generally interfere with human agendas, I can see how they get a bad reputation. But at the same time, how one can look at baby baboons and not see a teeny hairy human staring back is beyond me. They are strikingly human in their features, their play, and their society. There's no question we are closely related...though even closer to gorillas, and closest of all to chimpanzees.

The truth is that primates are not the most noble or admirable of creatures. All the things that annoy or disgust us about primates are pretty much true of ourselves as well. Chimps are known to have wars and take territory from adjacent chimps, even brutally killing the victims. Primitive animal warfare - not because the territory is needed for some key resource like water, but just because. Chimps are meat eaters, so they do kill smaller primates and other animals from time to time. They can be horribly cruel to each other. They can also be wonderfully smart, inquisitive, gentle, and organized. There have been documented coups where a despotic leader was deposed by a group of underlying chimps getting together and taking him out. It is basically, undeniably, the precourser to our own society.

Gorillas are actually more peaceful than baboons or chimps, keeping to themselves in family groups and being vegetarian except for some grubs and insects now and then for a bit of protein. Yet leave it to us to surround them with myths of violence and aggression. They are very gentle unless their family is threatened. I find it interesting that the first white man to "discover" the mountain gorilla killed it, then started a hunting party to shoot gorillas, and then became overwhelmed at the guilt of killing such human like creatures for no good reason. He lobbied for, and obtained, a sanctuary in the Belgian Congo for gorilla protection. Of course, you know man, as soon as a new thing is discovered there's a big rush on to find ways to kill it and to bring home the "trophy" of the deceased animal one way or another. Though I'd like to think we've evolved beyond that mentality, there are still people who pay big money to go shoot and kill perfectly innocent African animals - bored with killing the ones on their own continents I guess. Sick.

In any event, I am off this week to visit my relatives, the primates. Though I have mixed feelings about this, as I have no great love of humankind and I don't enjoy seeing our baser elements reflected in our forerunners, I can't help being fascinated by our similarities and by the complexities. I pretty much love all animals, even man on a general level, and I certainly will not pass up the once in a lifetime chance to go see the endangered mountain gorilla while they exist.

I will report back on or after May 10th, 2007. If all goes well, I will see gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, visit the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (intimidating name for hiking, what?), go to Kibali National Forest (supposedly containing over 80 species of primates, wow!), see Ugandan Kob and other various African wildlife, go to Amboseli in Kenya (as it was too dry last time to visit and see anything and it's the one remaining Kenya park I'm dying to see) and then finally visit my favorite park in Kenya, Samburu, to check back on the baby elephant I saw born in the wild 18 months ago. I'm more than a little creeped out about going to Rwanda 13 years after a machete driven genocide...and I struggle to put into words how I feel about that, and our failure to help some of the world's most helpless people in a time of crisis. So, I'll stick to mostly comments on the animals...and hopefully I'll check in with you as soon as I get safely back. As usual, the hardest part will be missing my own pets for a few weeks.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Kitten Season! Time to Foster!

Cats multiply quickly. For some reason, people don't seem to have gotten the spay and neuter message for cats quite as much as they have for dogs....and so in the Treasure Valley we have a cat over-population problem. Each year, thousands of cats are put down solely because they can't find homes. It's tragic...but you can help stem the problem by becoming a foster parent, and providing temporary shelter. If you foster a litter of kittens until they are old enough to get fixed and to have their mom fixed, you can provide a space for them to grow up, provide much-needed socialization so they don't grow up afraid of people, spare them and their mom the stress of shelter life and the confinement of a metal cage, and enjoy the baby time without the responsibility of caring for them all their lives. When they are old enough, you can help find them homes, or you can return them to the shelter for adoption...and when they are kittens they are cute enough to have a shot at it.

Don't be intimidated about fostering. The mother cat will do all the hard work - you need to provide food, water, and a safe, warm place. I use the guest room or spare bedroom. We attached a screen door so that mom and kittens can see and interact with our pets through a safe barrier. Once they get used to each other we let them interacted, monitored. I put down kitten toys, a blanket, and a low-sided litter box. For the first few weeks not much happens - the kittens nurse and grow, and it's fun to see when they start their wobbly walks and when their eyes open. Around 4 to 5 weeks they begin to learn to use the litterbox. They learn that well on their own 99.9% of the time.

Around 5 weeks I usually start getting them on solid food, and once they are all eating solid food 3x a day with healthy appetites we go through weaning - which is hard, as you have to separate mom from her babies and she will often lay on the other side of the door and pine for them hour after hour, day after day. (It takes 7-10 days for her milk to dry up enough for her to get spayed, and then she can interact again - though watch out for kittens trying to nurse her now-sore tummy!) Depending on the agency you foster for, the kittens may be spayed and neutered when they get to 8 weeks or 2 pounds, or may be adopted out with a contract that they be spayed/neutered at 6 months.

There are many great organizations you can foster for. For an application to foster through the Idaho Humane Society, click here. To foster for Conrad Strays, Inc., click here. For Northwest Animal Companions volunteer page click here. To help Simply Cats, click here. There are many more - check your area for local rescue groups and shelters; they almost always need help.

How do you decide who to foster for? The most important thing is what kind of support will you receive while fostering? If you have an unplanned trip, can someone take over for you? Who is responsible for getting the kittens adopted? One group I fostered for didn't have much infrastructure and I ended up advertising the kittens myself and having huge pressures to get them homes without much help. It was very stressful, and there was never anyone to cover for me....in fact I covered for others, sometimes having more cats/kittens to deal with than I was comfortable with.

I switched to fostering for the Humane Society because they have many options and great infrastructure. Due to their website and other advertising most kittens get adopted by 12 weeks, and if not, you can put them on the floor at the shelter and once on display they are usually gone in a few hours or days at the most. (Beyond 12 weeks kittens start to look like cats and have a harder time getting placed - find them homes when they are young!)

There are always a few frustrating things here and there (adopters who flake, kittens who get sick or miss the litterbox now and then, employees of the shelter who give you the run around, etc.) but the minor negatives are far outweighed by the huge positives of saving lives and playing with the kittens.

By handling them when they are young they learn not to fear people. I also expose them to dogs and other cats, and they end up being happy, healthy, and ready for the world. It's fun to match families with kittens and to hear back on how good the match worked out. I would suggest starting with one litter and seeing how it goes. Now that we've fostered for several years we can comfortably handle a dozen kittens at a time. It's chaos - but so much fun!!! I remember all of them, all their names, and what was special about each one. I highly recommend fostering....the animals need you. For each one you take home you free a cage so another can have the space and not get put down, plus you save the one you took home, and you prevent more by getting them fixed.

The hardest part is not keeping them all!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Courts Help Curtail Horse Slaughter - More Needed

Horses are generally companion animals in the U.S., like cats and dogs. So it's sort of sick to think of eating them, but you can find horse on the menu in France and other countries. The U.S. has slaughterhouses which have historically shipped horsemeat overseas for human consumption, as well as slaughtering them for dog food and other purposes. It's certainly a huge fear of people who have their horses sold that they are being sold to killers and slaughterhouses...and that does happen.

Two recent Court decisions at the federal appeals level are curtailing horse slaughter in the U.S., though the loopholes in the decisions are already being found. In January, a Court ruled that a 1949 Texas law banned the killing of horses for human consumption overseas. See here for an article on that ruling. Then, last week, a Court ruled that the USDA cannot inspect horsemeat for a fee. The USDA cut off funding to inspectors, but the work-around was that the slaughterhouses paid the inspection fees. The ruling in late March effectively shut sonw slaughter in the U.S., as slaughter cannot be accomplished without USDA inspection.

So, of course, the next loophole...the horses are now being exported to Mexico for slaughter there. See an excellent article on the subject here. The same article includes useful information on how to act to get something done about the problem that now exists of exporting horses for slaughter.

Congress has had bills pending to end horse slaughter and has refused to pass them. (The House did get one passed but the Senate didn't take it up). The Courts found legal grounds to stop the slaughter in other ways, over time, and now it's critical to pass the bills that would prevent the export of horses for slaughter. Only then will the U.S. stop contributing to the horse slaughter problem. While it's sad that any animals are slaughtered, for horses it's especially sad, because they are animals that are such wonderful ranch hands, hard workers, best friends, riding companions, and loving partners.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

A Visit to the Equine Dentist - and Other Horse Care

It's Spring...and time for our annual visit to the equine dentist. Although they have not yet been formally introduced in blog posts, we have two horses - Esmae, an Arabian mare, and Buster, a quarter horse gelding. Buster is level headed, and generally looks a lot more dignified than he does in this photo of him in the dentist's padded stock. He is shown here getting his teeth inspected before they are filed down.

Every Spring we trailer up for a relatively short drive to a visiting equine dentist, Sarah Metcalf. She is gentle with the horses and has a nice portable setup for the dental exams. While I don't like the sound of the file any more than human dental noises, the horses are generally put under a bit of sedation and don't seem to care much. If you can handle the icks of dentistry, I think this would be a good life. You get to ride around with your dogs, set your own hours, and work with animals.

Someone asked me recently about what horse care involves, as they are considering a horse for their daughter. I can't think of a better thing for a little girl to spend time on...I wish I'd learned to ride much earlier than age 30. I always dreamed of owning a horse, and actually I started saving for one at age 3 or 4. I was extremely determined, even as a small child, and I was very committed to saving up for my horse. I made my parents promise me that if I saved enough for a horse we could get one. By the time I was 6, I had saved $75 from doing extra chores, selling my used books and toys at garage sales, and collecting birthday money. In 1976 that was good money.

One day my sister said she saw an ad in the paper for donkeys for $75. Since the cheapest horses were at least a few hundred, a donkey seemed like a very good compromise, so I bought Jenny, an old pack train donkey. My parents were shocked when I produced an ad and the money, but to their credit they did not say no - though there were some heated discussions behind closed doors, in which I think my dad fought for them keeping their promise.

Unfortunately, about all Jenny liked to do, once acquired, was buck me off, and I never did save up enough for a saddle or other tack beyond a halter and lead rope, so I didn't get much riding experience, though I did enjoy Jenny's companionship for several years. In retrospect, it would have been worth waiting a few years and getting a real, trained, ride-able horse...but you know, I was 6, my life experience was limited. My zeal for equines was not. No one in my family knew anything about horses.

In any event, back to horse care. At first it was intimidating as I didn't know what to do, so I bought some books at Amazon.com and asked around. Now I would tell anyone considering a horse that the following are the basic care checklist items:

1. Vaccines - you need Spring and Fall vaccines. Any equine vet will be able to tell you exactly what you need, but ask about West Nile vaccine and rabies, which are not standard. While the vet is out, if you have a male horse he will need a sheath cleaning once a year. All horses should get dewormed a minimum of twice a year. If you have no injuries during the year, you can get by with twice a year vet visits, and you should be able to find a vet who will make a farm call. Ideally you want an equine specialist, though if there are none in your area get the vet most experienced with equines in your area.

2. Equine Dentist - you need to have the horse's teeth "floated" once a year, which files off sharp points that develop and can cause sores in their mouths. Young horses may need "wolf teeth" extracted, or their teeth filed down slightly to comfortably accommodate a bit (called a bit-set).

3. Farrier - horse foot care is vital, and there is no substitute for a good farrier. He/she can tell you if you need to shoe or not, and will regularly trim the horses' feet. Feet grow faster in the summer so you need the farrier every 6-8 weeks in summer and every few months in winter.

4. Hay - if the horse is on your land, you may need to buy quality hay once a year and store it in a dry location to avoid mold. I stock up in fall of every year. If you board the horses, hay is likely included in the board price.

5. Training - I send my horses away to training for a month once a year, in the Spring, for a tune up and to expand their skills. Many horse owners do this, as the horses have likely not been ridden much over the winter and it's good to get them in shape by working an hour a day with a trainer for a month before you start riding regularly. Personally I prefer trainers who use natural horsemanship and develop a partnership with the horse and I will never subject my horses to anyone who uses violence, spurs, whips, or attempts to "break the horse's spirit." I want them to teach the horse through communication and positive reward. Finding a good trainer can be the hardest of the horse care items, but if you ask around horse barns or events you should be able to find one before too long. Don't leave your horse with anyone until you have seen them in action, and seen their facility. Drop by unannounced to check on your horse also.

What does all this cost? About $1,000 per year per horse, if you have your own land. Obviously that varies by area and quality of hay, but it's a reasonable estimate. Of course, you have additional investment if you buy a horse, saddle, tack, trailer and truck, but you can phase those things in over time. Horses are not harder to take care of than other animals, and they are wonderful friends - just make sure they have another horse to hang out with if at all possible. They are social animals and it's hard on them to be alone.