Saturday, July 13, 2019

Mares eat oats and goats eat ... weeds

One of the little known facts I’ve discovered during our time living in a fixer-upper: it tends to be far more interesting and satisfying to fix up the habitats for our animals than the one for ourselves. It’s fun to see our macaws enjoying their outdoor aviary, complete with branches and ropes to climb and a fountain to splash in. It’s less fun to repair cracks in the plaster of one wall in the house only to realize that you’ll have to do the same with every single other wall in the house … and then there’s the ceiling … and those floors … not to mention the siding … and what exactly is going on in that crawl space? … and oh the hell with it, let’s make a bigger goat shelter, shall we?

Speaking of goats, one of K’s most recent completed projects involved fencing in the acre around our house so that our cloven-hooved buddies can perform their duties as weed-eaters across an even greater area. I was a little apprehensive at first—there is a lot in that one acre that goats could get into besides just weeds. As I’ve discovered, however, goats do not eat everything; they are, in fact, fairly reasonable in discerning what is and isn’t fit for consumption. That would seem to put them considerably ahead of humans, who really will eat just about anything. Fried pickles. Bacon-topped donuts. Cheeto-crusted chicken. And, oh! the things we’ve done in the name of pizza? Italy should sue.

The other surprising thing I’ve discovered is that our goats don’t seem to mind the heat at all. Ancestrally they are from hot regions, sure, yet still you’d think a woolly coat would be a big liability when the heat index hits triple digits. But no, all this past week I’ve watched them bounding merrily about the land, and when they take a midday rest, it’s fully in the sun. No shade, no SPF 152, no sweaty glass of iced tea rapidly coming to a boil.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, though. When I was a kid growing up in Hawaii, I spent summer days almost entirely outdoors, running madly about in the tropical heat until dusk, when I’d go back in and count how many new mosquito bites I’d gotten and brag if I had more than my sister. It was fun back then. If I do that now, it’s an ultramarathon and I train for it beforehand and suffer a lot during and brag about it afterward like I’ve just done something epic, when all I’ve done is act like I did when I was five. Minus the junk food, that is; my parents rarely let us drink soda or eat potato chips and candy. Every ultra, I attempt to make up for those lost years.

But I’m not going to tell you that this means children are stronger and more resilient than adults. Let’s face it, small children bawl their eyes out over things so bafflingly trivial you just have to laugh even knowing it will raise the bawling to gale-force level. And I’m not going to tell you that goats are these wise, gentle, uncomplaining souls that spend their days in peace and harmony with each other and nature. As I said in a previous post, goats are jerks. There is always plenty for all of them to eat, yet they seem obsessed with the idea that one of the others is unfairly getting more and better food. This results in a lot of shoving and head-butting whenever I appear, since they, like pretty much all our animals, see me as a walking vending machine. There is also a very strict size- and strength-based hierarchy that is sometimes disturbing to witness. The littlest goat, Chubb, has gotten so pushed around by the others that he stays away from them, off to the side, waiting for a moment when they’ve wandered off to scamper over and bleat for treats. But recently the second smallest, Kettle, broke one of his horns, the loss of which has temporarily made him a bit timid. This did not go unnoticed by Chubb: now there was someone he could push around, and he quickly head-butted his way into the #3 spot. Guys. Please. A little empathy?

I’ve made this point on this blog before, and I’ll make it again now: it does neither animals nor people any good to assert that one group or the other is “superior.” We may think we’re paying tribute to one species or another—or all of them other than our own—by making these comparisons, but all we’re doing is oversimplifying the complexity of living things. Throughout the animal kingdom, there are examples of what could be perceived as brutality, selfishness, and cruelty; there is also altruism, affection, playfulness, creativity, and unmistakable joy. But I suppose the reason we enjoy having animals in our lives—the reason K and I in particular often spend more time trying to meet their needs than our own—is that we can’t help wishing things could be simple. Perhaps we still long for happiness to require little more than the sun shining on a green field, and the feeling that you could keep running through it all day.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

An education in animals

“Wild animals should stay in the wild.”

Among the “beautiful!” and “I love birds!” comments on the facebook ad for my book, there were a couple of decidedly different replies, the above being one. As facebook comments go, this was pretty reasonable and non-trollish. Still, though, I was unreasonably irked. After all, in a very basic way, this remark was a non-sequitur. The birds I wrote about in my memoir, Bird People, weren’t ever wild. All three had been bred in a human environment and given ridiculously good lives. (No, seriously: our A/C is broken right now; theirs works. The aviary is cooler than our house. You’re welcome, boys.)

In fact, pretty much any pet bird younger than about 30 years old living in the United States wasn’t smuggled in but bred here. The U.S. banned new imports in 1992, and the penalties are so strict and the potential “rewards” so slim (horribly, the majority of smuggled birds to other countries die en route, so poachers bringing birds to those countries have to get top dollar to offset their “losses”) that it hasn’t been a big issue any more here, thank goodness, though it still is in other places. None of this is anything I knew until very recently, by the way, all the more reason to be understanding to others, including random strangers on facebook. I chose to make this a cheerfully teachable moment, applauding the commenter for caring while making her aware of some salient facts. Hey, you can take the educator out of the classroom, but you can’t take away her impulse to say “well, actually…” even when the subject is animals and she knows a lot more about gerunds than gerbils.

Truth is, being around animals all day, every day, has been a humbling experience for me in a lot of ways. As with anything one enters into as a newbie, I continue to discover just how much I don’t know. A macaw grinding its beak is contented, not anxious. Chickens stop laying eggs in the wintertime not because it’s cold but because there’s less light. Goats do not eat everything; they know what’s food and what isn’t, and so avoid metal fence posts and toxic plants alike. Who knew? Clearly not me until the last couple of years.

But I’ve learned far more than just fun factoids over this brief time. Crucially, I’ve discovered just how complex animal life can be—particularly in terms of relationships with the human animal. Just using the word “wild” to describe some animals and not others suggests a sharper division than may be warranted. There is not one square mile of this planet that has not been affected by human activity. Even the remotest “corner,” so to speak, is influenced by what we’ve put in the air, water, and soil—nearly always for the worse, it would seem. What that means, among other things, is that we cannot simply say “keep wild animals wild” and assume that this is all it takes to protect them. There is nothing simple about this.

There are instances where a species was on the brink of extinction due to humans, the remaining members in the double-digits—single digits, even, in some cases such as the California condor—and other humans intervened to protect and promote breeding. Should they have done this? Should we simply let wild be wild, regardless of consequences? There are those who say that attempting to “save” a species means messing with the balance of the ecosystem in ways we can’t predict, so if a single species is doomed, whether our doing or otherwise, we have to let it go. That seems harsh and horrible to me and doubtless many others—but are we only compounding the problem by stepping in again, good intentions notwithstanding? Again, I don’t have any easy answers; I doubt anyone does.

The only substantive suggestion I have on these weighty matters is that we try to put aside our knee-jerk righteous indignation once in a while and consider that many people really do care about animals, not just our individual selves. We may love to leap onboard the condemnation of this or that barbaric practice because it seems so clearly wrong, so straightforwardly cruel. And yet. Is a so-called “sanctuary” really more humane than a zoo, even though zoos need to be accredited and regularly audited and private sanctuaries do not? Is it really better to release a pet bird into the wild even though they’ve never spent one minute of their lives there and have no idea how to cope? And, more difficult, is that person who left the puppy in the hot car really evil, or just lacking in the understanding of how dangerous it is? We seem to want so badly to say that they’re evil; we want to say “they should be locked in a hot car themselves and see how they like it!” Alternatively, they could be made aware of the dangers so they never do it again. I’m not na├»ve; I know very well of the sickening history of human cruelty toward animals, including their fellow human animal. I also know that there’s an awful lot I still don’t know about animals and the intricate ways our lives are connected. And so I hope to keep learning as much as I can, about macaws, chickens, goats, and people, among a great many others.