Friday, February 18, 2011

Fiona and Drinian - Colorado Mountain Dogs

After being in Colorado, it was such a joy to come back to my BELOVED Colorado Mountain Dog, Fiona. When I'm gone, she often stays with her brother, Drinian, from the same litter. Fiona and Drinian arrived together from Colorado and I was there with my friend, Cat, to meet them. Yes, her name is CAT. Fiona is the princess on the left. Drinian is the prince on the right. He's a little bigger...she's only about 60 lbs (probably the smallest Colorado Mountain Dog ever produced) and Drin is edging up to 200 pounds, which is more "normal". Of course, he is male, and in dogs, the male is the larger (which is weird to me. I'm used to birds of prey where the female is the larger of the two).

These two are the best of friends. They play and roughhouse all over the yard, with Fiona keeping up a snarling that you wouldn't believe, but it's all in fun. She's usually such a quiet dog! They sleep together, eat together,...they do everything together. Still, they also wear each other out. When Fiona comes home, they both sleep almost nonstop for a week or so before getting back to "normal", whatever that is.

This time, when I went to pick her up, my mother came, too. We went down the street and visited Cat's horse, who lives with two goats and a pig! YES! The pig is highly intelligent and opinionated, and I pretty much fell in love with her. She does what she wants, when she wants, and is not cowed by the interests of humans! When Cat goes riding, there are the two white dogs, the black pig, and two black and white goats strolling along beside her. What a sight.

The pig made it very clear that we were to rub her tummy immediately, and we did so, with great enthusiasm. She was clean and cute! She made me think of Sy Montgomery's pig Christopher Hogwood from "The Good, Good Pig".

If you haven't read "The Good Good Pig" what are you waiting for? It's a wonderful book! Sy misses Christopher like I miss Wesley. And I miss Wesley as if he had just died yesterday. I miss him viscerally.

I did a talk at the G2 Art Gallery in Venice Beach, CA. last week, and Luna was there. Luna is an unreleasable female barn owl, whose human is a dedicated rehabilitator named Christina. It was so great to see both of them, and being able to interact with Luna made me miss Wesley all that much more. Luna is all personality and I love her. It's always a privilege to work alongside one of Wesley's "cousins" and it always makes me long for Wesley.

But at least Fiona is there for a good cuddle to ease the longing. Fiona is a dear, dear dog. She has a gentle spirit and a quiet way about her, yet she can be very protective at the same time. You can see in the picture that she's smiling! Don't these two dogs make a great pair?

Fiona is my dear, dedicated, beloved girl and I love her so much. She sleeps on the bed with me and is a great cuddler. I don't know how she stays so clean, but she's almost fanatical about it, and that makes it easier than ever to cuddle with her.

Sunday will ber her and Drinian's second birthday. Happy Birthday Fiona and Drinian!


Friday, February 4, 2011

Finding the GOLD...(warning: Verbose=ON)

I woke up thinking about all the important things I've learned in my field, that were not a result of lectures or books, and how I learned them. I think it's pretty important to think about this, especially if you're a kid who wants to learn about a certain subject or hobby, or a young person starting out in a chosen field.

What triggered these thoughts? I've been watching "Mutant Planet" and marveling at how well they explain the way species in an ecosystem are completely dependent upon each other, and how they're perfectly adapted to their exact environment. Take away one aspect of that environment and they are completely undone.

Recently, they've been showing an episode about the lemurs of Madigascar. Madigascar is one of the most unusual, amazing, "Dr. Seuss" looking places on the planet. And I love the lemurs. I used to work w/ lemurs - not work in the true sense of working, but I fed and cared for them and spent many, many hours with them, being groomed by them and grooming them back, just learning about their ways just like I did with Wesley. This was at that job I had before the owls.

I learned soooo much about primates in general there, and certain species specifically. But how did I learn so much if my job was just cleaning up after them, feeding them, and hanging out with them?

I kept my eyes and ears open and I was raging curious about everything. That's how I've learned a lot of what I've learned in the great halls of academia, or in the trenches of fieldwork or the drudgery/excitement of wildlife rehab. I've kept my head down and learned from listening to those around me. NO, not the gossip stuff. Toss it. No one needs it. "who is with who, who said what to who" can get that stuff anywhere there are humans. No, I'm talking about the nuggets.

The Nuggets that are Pure Gold.

Examples from my life at Caltech:
I've got my ears wide open because the great man Himself is in the lab. He is the head of the lab - the primatologist who studies these lemurs and is working to help with breeding programs aimed at keeping them from going extinct (perhaps Madagascar can be reforested then repopulated. Maybe we can find land in the USA w/ a similar climate, Hawaii? ..and plant miles of it in the same way as Madagascar and re-release lemurs there to flourish).

He tells a horror story about some institution where the caging wasn't done quite right and a monkey's tail was caught in it and he died over the night because no one was there that night to see it and he hung upside down all night and died. HORROR! You mean, that can be the consequence of the smallest mistake in proper caging? YES! I took that lesson to heart and when I had Wesley I was exTREMELY careful about every aspect of his environment.

I learned a lot by listening to his conversations w/ his post-docs while I was feeding or grooming monkeys nearby. It wasn't until I saw the Lemur episode of "Mutant Planet", though, that I realized just how much I did know about both lemurs and Madagascar. I knew pretty much everything they talked about, minus a few recent discoveries! How?

The Big Guy would come home from a trip to Madagascar and I'd hear him telling people about it. "We discovered 6 new prehistoric fossil types of lemur"...."There was a huge lemur only a few hundred years ago, probably wiped out by early deforestation when man first came to the island - the size of a gibbon or chimp!"..."The deforestation is wiping out the entire's so frustrating - how can we work with the natives to convince them not to destroy their own environment? Theyr'e talking about a new concept that can help these areas - Ecotourism, they're calling it. If the forest calls in tourism, the people will begin to value the forest for the money it brings in. It's worth a shot!"


Listening to him AGONIZING over a sister organization that keeps interfering with the baby lemurs. This institution to the north is trying to establish a similar breeding program to replenish the earth with lemurs (oh if you were to meet one, you'd feel as if the earth would just die if we didn't have lemurs! They're sweet to a fault, innocent. affectionate, and they look like they were made up by Dr. Seuss). This lab has a STUPID policy where every time a lemur gives birth, the idiot scientists (yes, some scientists can also be idiots - this is not a contradiction in terms here), would gown up, put on gloves and face masks to protect the baby lemur from human germs (we share diseases with primates, even prosimians), and reach into the nesting box and pull the baby out of the screaming mother's arms.

The mother probably didn't even recognize them as her friends, with that getup they were wearing.

Then they'd weigh, take down blood, measure the baby - all the things that they think they need for their records...these people have lost sight of the Big Picture in a HUGE WAY. They think it's about the scientific method, whereas their scientific method is the reason for their failure. Here's why:

They return the baby to the now hysterical mom and tiptoe out of the area (after all, everyone knows you should not disturb a new mother primate).

But it's too late. Some switch has gone off in the mother's brain or hormonal system. And just like clockwork, and in a scientifically verifiable way, the mother quits caring for the baby. She casts him aside, throws him over her shoulder like a piece of sacking, she throws him out the door of the high nesting box. Within hours the baby is dead. EVERY SINGLE BABY THAT HAS EVER BEEN BORN AT THIS FACILITY HAS DIED THIS WAY!

So what do the esteemed scientists at this esteemed academic facility DO? They call the Big Guy Primatologist at Caltech with their lament. "It didn't work again! She abandoned the baby! What do we do? Oh what oh what?"

Primatologist is getting sick of these calls. Getting sick of telling them NOT to take the baby out and weigh and measure it. To stay the H AWAY from the new family for about 2 weeks other than going in quickly to quietly clean and feed then GET OUT!

They never take his advice and he keeps getting these sad calls.

So one day he loses his temper (in the rather quiet way that a dignified scientist loses his temper). He vents to his postdocs.
I hear the whole story. I LEARN. I LEARN AND LEARN AND LEARN!


So why am I telling you this?

If you're 12, 14, 16....and you can't get where you want to be yet, but you know you REALLY want to learn more than you're learning now, what can you do? If you've just gotten out of college but you need experience, what can you do to learn more, to gain experience?

You can get a grunt job in a GREAT PLACE and keep your eyes and ears open. That's huge. It's a lot more than people realize. A lot of people eschew "grunt jobs" but they can be your best bet. They can be GOLD for you if you know how to work it.

The way you work it is you learn as much as you can - actively. You listen, you watch, you ask questions.

Let's say you get to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center, but you're only allowed to clean cages. Maybe they let you help cut up food. WONDERFUL! This is your way in to learning about how to run a wildlife center - every aspect of it.

As you clean an enclosure, take a good, hard look at it. Why does every bird of prey enclosure have a long, thick piece of wood running diagonally up to the top perches, and why is it covered in astroturf? Sure, astroturf might be easier to clean than just wood, but that can't be the only reason, can it? If you don't figure it out, ask someone. Answer: When we get injured birds of prey who will never be able to fly again, are they supposed to sit on the damp, cold ground? Is it even normal for their feet to sit on the ground? Won't they become very anxious on the ground, where their instincts tell them theyr'e in big trouble? If they're that terrified, could the stress kill them? Yes it could. So you give them a way to walk up to the kind of higher perch they're used to. But wait, there's not just a perch up there, there's also an astroturf platform that goes back into a corner. In fact, when you clean the cage, the birds crowd into that high corner and threaten you. It gives them a stable place to rest if their balance is off. Say they only have one wing - it's much more difficult to perch naturally, so they go to the platform to rest.

The astroturf gives them something to hang on to, especially if they're crippled in some way and thrown off balance.

Now you know.

Why are they using netting in the big eagle flight cages instead of just a roof? Could it be because the big snow storm of '88 collapsed all the roofs nearly killing the animals inside and the center learned a hard lesson?

This is the GOLD that you can dig up from a grunt job. I have learned as much in life by keeping my eyes and ears open as I have from study - and THAT is saying a LOT. Cuz I am ALWAYS reading.

I read so much that, when I was a kid, my mom sometimes had to take a book away and hide it so I would sleep. Otherwise I'd be up all night w/ a flashlight, my pillow folded in half so that when I heard her coming I could flip the folded half of the pillow over the book and act like I'm asleep. Then she'd leave and I'd resume reading. She couldn't help but notice if I was completely exhausted the next day. So she had to sometimes STOP me from reading. I read while I walked, I read during recess, I read in the car, in the bathtub, at the table - my Dad is the same way. I'm not saying we're antisocial, just that we read a lot.

But still, I've learned more from keeping my eyes and ears open and learning from people who know more than I do.

And never thinking I know all of it.

If I were a kid who was frustrated and wanting to get on with things, I'd look for a place where i can learn a heck of a lot from the people around me, while doing the most menial of work nearby.

And it's amazing the college level stuff you can learn from TV shows like Mutant Planet - quality shows that explain how everything goes together. We used to learn that kind of stuff in college lectures!

And don't forget that itunes has a free university - you can hear physics lectures from MIT, you can hear the stuff you're interested in, by the best lecturers in the world, from the best schools in the world (Harvard, MIT, etc) by just downloading it! WOW! We never had anything like that! If you took physics, it was the FIRST TIME you had heard ANY of it and you were going to be tested on it in a week! NOW you have a huge edge! You can hear and learn it all before you even TAKE physics. That is also Pure GOLD!

Sorry if this seems lectury. In a book I'd weave all this through a story of some kind but that takes a lot longer to craft and I just wanted to say it right out.

The next book will have Wesley in it, but it's broader. It's about many of the animals I've loved and known, and their stories. Wesley was there all along, of course, and had his strong opinions, which I will write about. But I can't just retell his story again, right? I imagine you'll want to hear about some of the other amazing animals I've encountered, loved, and known. They all have their story to tell, and such stories they are!!!

Happy Ground Hog Day (I was born on Groundhog Day - the ONLY day we have that's named after an animal. I've always loved that!)