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Forty Years with Birds and Dogs 

Dogs and Lost Hens—Time Is Precious

DeeDee and Scooter in their prime

I should explain that the dogs do not reside in the Hen House, but they have a lot to do with it. They have a huge pillow bed and a life-sized artificial bear rug to sleep on under my desk-door-resting-on-file-cabinets and a closet devoted to the two-dog door system husband Don invented to prevent heat loss (into the closet, then outside).

The dogs’ job is to watch and protect the birds while they’re out in the yard. They do their job effectively, except when the hungry hawks that nest next door are on the hunt. They got my old hen Jupiter when the dogs were off terrorizing chipmunks in the woodpile. The hawk must have startled the miniature Mallards, Kiebler and Ms. Ritz. I hunted all over the yard for them. Finally I heard their quizzical quack and found them outside the back fence, waiting for me to let them back in. Some years later the hawk, probably a chicken hawk, got Butterscotch in a heavy rain, when the birds were hunched under an apricot tree. All we found was a small pile of feathers.

The dogs managed to kill a skunk one week, without getting more than a token perfuming. Poor thing. We hadn’t seen a skunk in the yard for several years. In the 80’s they lived under the Hen House, and in the ‘70’s our current dog Poncho was best friends with daughter Indra’s pet skunk Streak. Her story has been told in my weekly online column with the Los Alamos Daily Post. Search "Cary Neeper".
The gophers are also long gone from the yard, after a summer-long pursuit that left a six-inch deep trench in front of the Ponderosas that frame and shelter the Hen House. The one they caught was huge. Until this year, I haven’t had to clip the dogs nails since they were pups.

Now the dogs are aging. They don’t dig for gophers any more, and they are once again invading the yard. I’ll also have to get out the clippers soon. The dogs’ nails are long enough to make them skid and trip on the back stairs—not a good thing, for DeeDee’s arthritis is slowing her down.

So what’s the point of all this? Life is a strange mix of eat and be eaten, live and let live when you’re bonded as youngsters, survive when you can and enjoy the ride. Time is precious.

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Boots—A First Dog

We’ll continue in a more orderly way for a while, viewing life as a continuum of nonlinear interactions that weave us into a complex universe, making things unpredictable at every level for at least six reasons. I’ll be including stories from my forty years with domestic birds and dogs. Many will add to the current flood of wonderful anecdotes and studies that illustrate how we have finally come to realize how much we humans share with other life.

My life with animals began at age three in San Leandro, California, when Ma and Pa gave brother Harold and I a string to pull. We did, and in came two white legs under a waddling ball of brown fluff. We named her Boots. During World War II we had a Victory Garden in the hills above Hayward, California. My dad kept a few chickens in a pen in the apricot orchard. My job was to herd them back into the pen. Read More 

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Jealousy Amongst the Beasts

Lucy, Bobbi and Turkey Two (Little Bear)

This column is about jealousy, which turkeys are not. They simply demand attention and swipe bites of sandwich when they get a chance.

I hate to complain, but it’s only been a few short decades since animal behavior scientists could publish words like affection or empathy in their scientific papers, thanks to Frans deWaal and others on the Discovery Channel and PBS broke the ice.

All good soap operas should deal with jealousy once in a while, instead of relying on poor communications to turn the plot. I’ll deal with it right up front, right now, while Bobbi goose rapidly attains status as the dominant personality in the Hen House. Jealousy is the most prominent driving force of Hen House sociology. I watch it every day, amazed.

Dogs are the most jealous of critters. DeeDee, being the most alert of our two canine family members, can’t stand to watch me murmur sweet nothings to the birds of the Hen House.

There doesn’t need to be any food involved. If I kneel down to talk to young Bobbi goose and scratch the bottom of her neck, I immediately have two wet noses nudging my hand and wet tongues washing my face. DeeDee and Scooter can’t stand to hear me sweet talk the baby goose without getting some for themselves, and a neck massage to go with it.

Baby goose Bobbi also has a jealous streak, and it prevented my making friends with Motley and Lance, the ducks Ms. Ritz raised one spring. When Bobbi scarped the melon rind I held for her, I tried offering it to Motley. The yellow and black hybrid duckling cocked his head and looked at me straight in the eye as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Still, Bobbi wouldn’t ever stand for my approaching Motley with the leftover Honey Dew rind. With her raspy complaint she’d get between us, and sometimes Lucy would join her, as if to protect their treat from such lowly beings. Lucy acts the same way toward the chickens, so I’m reduced to squatting at the chicken wire barrier between the wet nursery and the dry hen/turkey pen, holding one melon rind in one hand for the chickens while the other hand holds a rind for the geese.

The ducks watch, but not jealously or longingly, not even very interestedly. I think they know it’s a hopeless cause. They even give way to the geese at the ponds. Taking turns, I call it.

But the real reason the melon rinds don’t interest them is probably because their bills aren’t made for scraping out bites of fruit. It took Lucy some time to master the art, and she can scrape out a bit with the tip of her beak or chew up the entire rind with the serrated edges of the back of her beak. No problem. However, it’s taken Bobbi some time to learn the technique, and she still doesn’t get it. Or maybe her beak or jaw muscles are not strong enough yet. She can sure pick apart the little green apples that fall into the pen, so maybe she just isn’t motivated by the taste of Honey Dew melon.

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Martha’s Belly

Selective breeding has done a real number on layers and broilers—chickens, that is. The layers I’ve had, poor things, don’t live long after a life laying a two-ounce egg every day or so, even in winter, after they reach six months. Modern chickens are living examples of how rapid evolution can be. At two years of age they sit around one day and fall over dead the next. Or they walk around like they’re carrying a load, and are put to sleep by sympathetic vets who can tell a rampaging cancer from a stuck egg, At least death comes quickly to the kindly birds.

Some vets don’t know much about chickens. I discovered this shocking fact some time back in the 1970’s, when Martha started walking around splay-legged, like a bird with a loaded diaper. I drove her, with her suspiciously balloon-shaped abdomen, to the vet ten miles down the road. The young vet extracted some clear fluid from Martha’s belly and admitted to being somewhat puzzled. I suggested I would be willing to pay for an x-ray, and the deed was done. In the x-ray, to our horror, we spotted a very clear dark object framed by the l-shaped bones of the overloaded chicken.

“How much would it cost to have that removed?” I asked

The answer was also shocking. $100 was real money in the 70’s. Sadly, I took Martha home, but something about that x-ray bothered me. When I deposited the sick chicken in the back yard, she ran off to greet her nest mates, apparently relieved at having escaped major surgery.

I ran for the bookshelf still loaded with text books from my college days and found the basic zoology text. There it was, on page 108, a simple anatomic diagram of a domestic chicken, a familiar dark spot framed nicely by the l-shaped bones of leg and pelvis. It was labeled “gizzard.”

I laughed out loud, then smirked knowingly to myself and gave myself ten brownie points for not calling the young vet with the good news. Martha lived another happy six months before she succumbed to her mysteriously bloated belly.

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What You Expect Is What You Read—Or Not

Since viewing the Nature program “Animal Odd Couples,” a PBS video, I’ve been focused on the many engaging stories aired by PBS and by many authors, including Penny Patterson, and Koko, Temple Grandin, making a difference, and Frans deWaal, studying animal emotions. Therefore, I expected more anecdotes when I started reading Gary Kowalski’s Blessings of the Animals.

Indeed, in the middle of that book, there are some good stories--a polar bear coming nightly to play with Huskys in Alaska, a young leopard playing with a Golden Retriever puppy in South Africa, the friendship of two Groton goats and a timber wolf at the San Diego Zoo, the gorilla Koko and her kitten.

As I began reading I became disoriented. The first two chapters of Kowalski’s book talked about animals in church and something about old saints. I should have known better. The book was about blessings. The title said so.

Once I woke up to that fact, I was ready for the wonderful examples of blessings the author had written. Each chapter illustrated a different way in which animals have blessed human life.

Our job as writers clearly demands that we do our best to reflect the essence of our stories in our titles and 25-word tags. As readers, it might be helpful to believe what the titles of books are trying to say.

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Bullsnakes--Friends of the Hen House

Rescued Bullsnake

I could use a few more bullsnakes. (We called them garter snakes in California.) A lovely long one lives under the dog igloo where Kiebler and Ms. Ritz reside, but he has not been able to keep up with the mouse population, now that they have learned not to drown in the ducks' bathtubs.They scamper away into the ground when they hear me filling the water tubs. They don't bother anything, and they don't eat more than their share, but it means I have to be careful how I handle things. I don't want to encourage hanta virus.

This Friday the Los Alamos Daily Post will publish my column about the rattlesnake we met while working on a Seismosaurus dinosaur site here in New Mexico. As a result, I heard from Jan Macek, who has published her snake rescue stories on Animalrescuechase.com. Here is her bullsnake story from that site. Her "rattlesnake" story appears as a comment on today's other blog, below.


Skinny Bullsnake
by Jan Macek

"I should explain that I have a great love for reptiles especially snakes and do free educational snake programs. Snakes, especially in New Mexico, and elsewhere, don't have much of a voice so I try to give them one. Early Nov. 2010 I got a call from a lady who told me that her kids had found a snake stuck in a hole. When we got to the site, sure enough, there was a bullsnake head protruding from a hole. Somehow, a bullsnake had gotten into a gopher hole but for some reason, the hole had caved in and the snake couldn't get out. We live in the mts of NM and the nights were getting cold so if this snake hadn't been rescued when it was, it would have frozen in the near future. When I dug the snake out, I discovered a very skinny bullsnake about 5 ft. long. I have had him for almost 5 months and he will not eat on his own. I have had to tube him with turkey babyfood to get this system ready for food items. He will not eat on his own so I have had to assist feed him with large (frozen/thawed) pinkies and fuzzies. I am hoping he will eat on his own in the future. I am not sure what happened to him but I suspect that he was someone's pet for many years and then he was let go and couldn't fend for himself. I had been hearing about this large bullsnake all summer and it is strange for so many people to see the same snake in the same area all summer. I should have known that this is not normal for a snake. I don't know if he will survive but I do know that if he does, he has a forever home with me. This picture was taken right after he was rescued. He looks the same after 5 months because one can"t stuff a snake in order for them to put on weight quickly. It has to be done slowly. Reptiles, deserve the same compassion as we give our 4 legged pets."

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Universal Emotion: Relating to Animals and Aliens

Now that we’ve reviewed Rob Dietz’s “encouraging scenes from the steady state” in his recent guide to the future Dietz and Dan O'Neill Enough Is Enough, we should move on to the other issues that the books in “The Archives of Varok” address. We are running a comment contest until June 20—a set of books going to the most thoughtful ideas about two issues.

The first issue is directly related to the Hen House theme of our responsibility to animals that we adopt. Also to those who live near the Hen House and keep the mice under control, like this friendly rattlesnake who lived at the Seismosaurus Site and warmed himself around the generator. He politely let me take this picture, but only if I stayed back exactly 3 feet.

My reviewer at the Los Alamos Daily Post asked the best question so far--could an extended family, including aliens and humans, really work? The mixed family of The Archives surely do have their problems, and though they’ve met them head-on in both A Place Beyond Man and The Webs of Varok, there are more to come in the next volume, Conn: The Alien Effect, to be released early this summer.

I’d like to believe that we humans have matured to the point where we could appreciate the alienness of other beings. We’re doing much better with animals now, since Temple Grandin shared her experiences with us in her book Animals In Translation, New York: Scribner, 2005.

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"Enough Is Enough" Not A Cliche--A Critical Book by Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill

The rumors are true. I am reading Robert Fishe's "The Dimwit's Dictinary cover to cover. I'm underlining it too. What? You heard me. (Ha! I just looked up that phrase. He forgot that one.) I said, I'm underlining words and phrases that I probably would use, phrases like "express (concern)" or "attitude." Fiske lists helpful alternative words, sometimes, so I'll continue reading and underlining. I'm up to G. I'm sure his book will help me in the ongoing struggle to ramp up my verbiage to new heights. (Ooops. No, that one's not there, either.)

That said, I'm moving on. (Ha again! Neither phrase is listed, but "moving forward," is.) I'm going to express my doubts about the phrases listed in the Dimwit's Dictionary. Some are too useful; they express too precisely what I mean to say, sometimes with a tone that no alternative phrase or word captures. Take, for example, the title of Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill's excellent, concise summary of why we need to do this and that to begin the conversion to a steady state, now. "Economics for Dummies?" No! It's called "Enough Is Enough." Rob thought long and hard about using that title. A search can get 150 hits on the phrase. But it says exactly what they wanted to say, and I agree. They say why. They say how to make a steady state work for the betterment of all. It's a text that should be required reading in every school in the country, important for all of us to read before we can't stop imploding. I doubt that the title will hurt his sales. Enough Is Enough memorable and right on target. Just be sure to add the Dietz and O'Neill to your search. Here's an url to help. Enough Is Enough

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A Review of Pi, Dogs, Geese and Family Values

Cary with DeeDee, Bobbi and Lucy. The chickens are lost in the shadows.

Yesterday we saw the movie "The Life Of Pi"--a thoughtful exploration of religion and meaning and the animal mind--a masterful use of 3-d to express nature's power and human fragility and beauty without going over the top too often. The effects did not steal too much story time, just a little, with lengthy storms. What impressed me most was the director's restraint 1) in leaving the large questions unanswered, and 2) letting the human be a human and the tiger be a tiger.

Tigers are not dogs, nor are dingoes or wolves, though they share genes with domestic dogs. I suspect coyotes' tameness/civilized gene packages may be changing with their urbanization as dogs' did. The many nuances of eye contact tell the tale.

Geese also do eye contact, but it's very hard to read, maybe because their facial muscles don't attractively contract the orange ring that encircles their eyeballs. Or maybe I lose the eye contact in the constant honking they do when faced with a creature who leaves them puzzled.

My geese--Lucy and Bobbi--honk every morning at the three ducks, establishing their dominance over the favored area in the pen. Then everyone quiets down to do their morning washup, using their fluffy heads as very effective washrags--which bring me to the point of this blog--the concept of family. Dogs are family. They've had 50,000 or more years to refine their tameness gene cluster. They understand my emotional outbursts, and I understand theirs.

I don't understand goose Bobbi, as Pi failed to understand the tiger. We meet on a primitive level all right--the level where hunger and safety and dominance are clear, but Bobbi is also family. I am committed to her well being, to her health, her happiness. (I do believe she has such a thing.) Geese hate being handled, so I don't try to pet them, and I restrain them only when I must, to tend to a torn toenail or to put them into a dog crate for a fire evacuation. I provide shelter from the cold, and I will never prepare Bobbi's carcass for Christmas dinner--because she trusts me. She eats corn and Honey Dew melon rind from my hand. In fact, she expects goodies to appear every afternoon at 4, for she follows me to the pen when I come out with the kitchen scrap bucket. She doesn't know I'm a carnivore and never will, for I will never stalk her. She's a creature of schedule, like most animals, but she's puzzled. She hasn't got me figured out. I'm not quite flock. Lucy knows that; she was raised by 4H girls. But Bobbi hasn't learned what family is. Yet.

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