Oops. There’s a bird in my house.


There’s a bird in my house.


By Dan Pancamo (Flickr: Carolina Wren) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s clinging to one of the blades of the ceiling fan. No, wait! Now it’s on the lampshade. Oh, and now it’s flapping spasmodically at the window–seeing the trees, drawn to the trees, but barred by glass and walls, possibly forever…. No. This cannot stand.

The door is still open. The bird just needs to find it and aim for it, and it will be free.

Why was the door open?

The door is often open because I like it open. I like the sounds of nature–a breeze jostling the leaves of the mature oaks that preside over my backyard, birds saying undecipherable things to each other in cheeps and chirps, squirrels scolding my cat for being a predatory jerk who belongs in the house.

windows don't open
Sights but no sounds, unless I open the door…

The windows in my living room look out on all these living things, but they don’t open. So I can see all this life. but I can’t hear it, and I want that. The door opens onto an enclosed deck, and when the door is open, my dog and cats can come and go at will. I like that I can spice up their day by giving them choices, and access to places that interest them. Especially my little blind cat, who lives in a world of sounds without sights. The great outdoors is too dangerous for him, but in the safety of the deck he can dream of wild ways.

daredevil on my lap
Laps get boring. The deck beckons…

This door-propping behavior is unpopular with my family. Some of these living things I want auditory access to…they find their way inside. Or really, they lose their way and wind up inside. Usually it’s just bugs. Which make great cat toys–especially buzzy, frantic cicadas. And naturally (this is nature, after all) there’s the occasional wasp, which freaks out my kids.

I tell them beating their fear of wasps is one of the most empowering life changes they’ll ever make. Imagine becoming someone who can dispassionately observe all that flamboyant whirring and ominous hovering and just think to yourself, mmm-hmm. There goes a wasp. That is so cool.

By Trancelius (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I am this someone. I wasn’t always, but now I am. And I feel smug and bad-ass about it. When a wasp zooms in, I let it wear itself out a little with its hissy fits of bashing into lights and crashing into windows. I wait for it to land. Then I calmly place a cup over it, slide a piece of cardboard under it, walk it outside, and liberate it. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

But when the intruder is a bird, that calls for a different tactic–one that eludes me. In the past it’s usually just been quite literally a hit or miss thing (with the bird hitting stuff and me missing the bird) until the bird accidentally escapes through the open door.

There must be a better way. But it’s not coming to me as I plot with my daughter about how to solve this thing.

We helplessly, foolishly try to communicate with this bird. We point to the door. No comprende. We walk toward the door with an exaggerated stride, inviting the bird to follow. It does not. We appeal to it in words: “Bird! Over here!” Not surprisingly, this also has no effect; the bird continues to flit randomly from edge to ledge to tip to top, occasionally in the direction or vicinity of the door but never through it.

I get a broom.

My plan with the broom is nebulous so far. I’m not going to swing it at the bird and panic it to death. But maybe I can block the bird from flying away from the door by brandishing this broom at a strategic angle in a strategic spot? As I grasp the handle and hold it aloft, lo and behold, the bird swoops over and alights on the bristles. All I have to do is march the bird outside as it surfs the broom! But the moment I move, the bird startles and flutters off. Drat.

Think. THINK! I’m a lifelong student of animal behavior. How can I commandeer this bird’s natural behavior to get it out of my house to freedom–and fast, before it poops all over my rug? What has it consistently, repeatedly been doing the whole time I’ve been effetely following it around trying bird-brained ways to save it? It’s been looking for perches.

What if I could entice the bird to perch on something that lies beyond the door?

By Manjith Kainickara (Flickr: Carolina Wren) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I step outside and out of view, holding the broom horizontally about chest height in the doorway. The bird spies this new perch. It is an excellent perch, if I may say so. The bird agrees! It flaps over from across the room and lands on the broom. It seems to instantaneously recognize the sensations of the outdoors. It takes flight and disappears. I feel relieved and a little bit self-congratulatory.

Will this work next time? Because there will be a next time. Because I like the door open so I can hear the natural world out there. And when the natural world pays me an intimate visit? Well, as you may have heard, I like animals underfoot.

my feet on deck
My deck.

Ode to the Rat


rats behind bars
photo by Mel issa  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode

My 7th grader’s science teacher is letting her opt out of dissecting a rat, as a conscientious objector. She says the rats were murdered just so her fellow students could slice them open for a peek inside, and that is NOT okay with her. My husband, a doctor who places great value in the tactile experience of dissection to plumb the mysteries of anatomy and physiology, says opting out is NOT okay with HIM.

I, too, dissected stuff in my day, without much compunction–even though I’m a card-carrying bleeding heart who won’t even kill a stink bug. (I euthanize them in the freezer). As I encourage my daughter to participate, in spite of her objections, so she can learn from the experience, I start asking myself: What did I learn by eviscerating a frog, fish, and fetal pig? I did find value in it, a sense of discovery. But perhaps there is a dark underbelly of dissection that I haven’t thoroughly probed.

sleeping rats
photo by timpike10 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

I trust animals that become dissection specimens have been euthanized according to humane standards. And frankly, euthanasia is a much gentler death than many humans experience, or than wild animals suffer in the jaws of a predator or after prolonged starvation or disease. But what of the lives of these animals before euthanasia and dissection? Were they treated humanely by people who cared about their welfare and understood their needs? Is this even knowable? Would I want to know? That is, perhaps, a topic for another day.

My daughter can be melodramatic, but her feelings are genuine. Her concern is valid, though unexamined. Her teacher is empathetic and won’t force the issue. I remain conflicted. I value a science education and respect the teacher’s choice to provide a hands-on zoological deep dive. But my heart bleeds when animals suffer, and surely the life of a lab rat before it becomes a dissection specimen cannot be devoid of suffering? Still, the rat my daughter will (or, according to her, will NOT) dissect has already lived and died; if she doesn’t make good use of it now, doesn’t that add insult to injury? Has the rat died in vain, only to be wasted?

rat stretching for treat
photo by Ian Crowther  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode

I encourage my daughter to research the lives of lab rats, so her feelings can be guided by facts, heart and mind in sync. I share a coping strategy of my own: when I witness an animal suffering, I try to symbolically offset it with an act of kindness toward another animal–a pet, a shelter animal, a wild critter, whatever. Maybe she can counterbalance her rat dissection by donating to a rescue organization, putting up a bird feeder, playing an extra-long ball game with our dog, or some other gesture that feels right to her.

Whether my daughter comes down on the side of dissecting or objecting, I’ve decided to use this space to cleanse my conscience about the whole thing by honoring the rat. How are rats special and worthy of awe? Let me count the ways:

1. Rats laugh when you tickle them.

laughing rat cartoon
By Jeff Drew on www.inlander.com

So you’ve never heard a rat dissolve into a fit of giggles? That’s because the sound they make is supersonic–exceeding the highest frequency human ears can perceive. In 1996, when neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and his team used a bat monitor to listen in on rats playing, they picked up a 50 kHz twittering noise. Panksepp had been searching for a vocalization associated with play to use as a quantitative metric in his research, and there it was. As he reflected on the emotional significance of the sounds, it dawned on him that, given the context, maybe the rats were laughing.

jaak panksepp
Jaak Panksepp on www.discovermagazine.com

Crazy? Plenty of his colleagues thought so. But further studies replicated Panksepp’s findings and substantiated his hunch. Consistently, rats expressed these chirping sounds only in fun situations, like play with other rats and tickling by humans. How do we know they think tickling is fun? Rats who love tickling chase after hands to solicit more tickles. Some rats valued tickling even more than treats as a training reward. Scientists have even purposefully bred a strain of tickle-loving rats for further research.

Are_We_Smart_Enough_coverNaturally there was plenty of skepticism about Panksepp’s theory. I say naturally, because humans habitually seek–and defend–distinctions between ourselves and animals, loath to credit beasts with those qualities and capacities upon which we base our superiority. For much more on this, read Frans de Waal’s spellbinding book Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

So we object to sharing a trait like laughter with a lowly rodent. But think about it. If rats make a distinctive utterance in the same circumstances that make humans laugh–and we know this sound represents pleasure because rats keep wanting more of it–then you can call it whatever you want, but it’s hard to prove it’s not laughter.

Studying rat chuckles might sound frivolous, but investigating rat behavior during positive and negative emotional states can be applied to the wider scope of mental health and mood disorders in humans. And if a rat has to endure scientific experiments that may include aversive experiences, it’s heartening to think laughter could also be part of this life.

2. Rats empathize, cooperate, and share.

Rats will break their friends out of jail. In a study published in Science magazine in 2011, Inbal Bartal and his colleagues encased a rat in a clear plastic box, stashed a piece of chocolate (a favorite rat treat) in another, and then turned one of the trapped rat’s pals loose to see what he would do. The free rat quickly solved how to unlatch the boxes–no surprise given rats’ dexterity and shrewdness. But instead of leaving the other rat locked away while hogging all the chocolate, he first emancipated his friend and then shared the treat with him. And loads of other rats went on to do the same. This clever video from How Stuff Works includes a snippet of this experiment.

In another study, rats in separate enclosures took turns giving each other food. In the first phase, Rat #1 could serve Rat #2 either bits of banana (rat candy) or scraps of carrot (a decidedly meh food). In phase two, Rat #2 could dole out cereal to his partner at whatever rate and on whatever schedule he chose. Rats who had dined on banana were quick to supply their server with plenty of cereal. Those who just got crummy old carrots gave less cereal to their stingy partner, and took their sweet time doing it. Rats recognized who had been good to them, calculated how good, remembered it, and reciprocated proportionally–kind of like people do.

3. Rats can learn and perform eye-poppingly awesome tricks.

We hear a lot about lab rats learning to run mazes or press levers, so we know they can master some simple chores. But if you want a sense of how much is going on in their little pea brains, check out this video by sixteen year old rat lover Abby Roesner. She’s trained her pets to do some stunning stunts, including dunking a miniature basketball, fetching her a Kleenex when she sneezes, and pulling money out of her wallet!

4. Rats can detect landmines and sniff out tuberculosis.

In one of the most gripping (to me, anyway) TED Talks of all time, Bart Weetjens showcases his “Hero Rats”, which he trains to locate buried landmines in Mozambique, Angola and Indochina. Why use rats? Because they have a superpower: an ultrasensitive nose. Rats have more DNA devoted to the sense of smell than all other mammals except African elephants. Weetjens’ rats learn to recognize the scent signature of mines, scratch at the ground when they find it, and return to their trainer for a nibble of banana. They’re also trained to wear a harness and walk on a leash.

hero rat
on www.globalgiving.org

Once they’ve attained proficiency, the rats undergo a certification test. Those that pass become accredited detection animals, just like bomb sniffing dogs but–as Weetjens points out–they’re 80% cheaper to train and maintain. Plus, because rats are so lightweight, they don’t trigger land mines to detonate. Once a rat identifies a mine, a de-mining team is called in to disarm it. More than 50,000 explosives have already been deactivated with assistance from Hero Rats.

Weetjens’ rats are also helping diagnose tuberculosis (TB) in human patients. The standard diagnostic method recognized by the WHO (World Health Organization) is to examine sputum (gunk coughed up from the lungs) under a microscope for the presence of TB. Visual inspection at best picks up only 60% of actual cases, though, so many sick people miss out on early treatment. But the nose knows; rats seeking the faint tar-like odor TB patients exude rarely come up with a false negative.

Plus they’re faster by far. It takes a rat just two hundredths of a second to sniff out TB. What would take a full day with microscopy, a rat can process in seven minutes; given a day, a rat can test 6,000 samples. In Tanzania Weetjens’ HeroRATS have already screened nearly 300,000 sputum samples and correctly diagnosed more than 7,000 patients whose TB was missed by microscopy.

So. Rats. Wow. Do you have a rat story? A deep admiration for rats in general, or one rat in particular? Have you ever dissected a rat, or refused to, on moral grounds–or any other grounds for that matter? Let me know!

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Goat Sitters: Finding one, being one, and realizing I am not goat sitter material.

People sure do love their goats. Listen to members of The Goat Spot forum profess their devotion: On the subject of how goats make life better, “wndgrvr” swears, “If I didn’t have my animals I would be just an old fat lady watching TV.” On selling their kids (i.e. goat babies), “billmac” groans, “We advertise, and then we agonize. I want to have the FBI do a background check on these people so I know they’re going to a good home.” And on leaving the farm to travel, “TexasRanger” pleads, “Does anyone know some good questions to ask someone before I let them NEAR my goats?”

For anxious goat keepers like TexasRanger who need or want time away from the farm, the online goat community is a font of wisdom. Here’s what they say on the subject of…

Finding a competent goat sitter

4-h1. Contact the 4-H Club or Future Farmers of America to find an agriculturally inclined teenager looking for experience and pocket money. Some are already raising their own goats.

2. Ask for referrals at your local farmers’ market. Surely they must have some intel on trustworthy farm sitters; after all, they leave their animals every week to peddle their wares.

3. Hire a professional farm sitting company. Depending on your needs, they can basically move in while you’re gone, or pop by a couple times a day as needed.

4. Barter with neighbors–goat care in exchange for goat care, or some equivalent services. But people frowned on the idea of dropping your goats off for an extended slumber party at your neighbor’s house while you travel; the change of scene and routine can really jangle a goat’s nerves.

Once you’ve tracked down someone reliable, what are the main jobs they’ll  do?


That’s a no-brainer. It is a well-known fact that goats thrive on a diet of tablecloths and tin cans. OK that’s a myth. But they’re versatile noshers. They can even eat noxious stuff like poison ivy. Some snack on paper. In her book Raising Goats for Dummies, Cheryl K. Smith posits that the tin can fallacy was born when someone saw a goat trying to eat the label off the can.

So what normal stuff do they eat?

goats eating treesGoats are willing to graze, meaning they’ll eat grasses and other low-lying plants, but most are primarily browsers, i.e. munchers of the leaves and branches of bushes, shrubs and small trees. In addition to whatever they nibble during free grazing or browsing time, staples of the farm goat diet include hay, grain, and minerals like copper and salt, in varying amounts and proportions depending on a goat’s stage of life. For example, pregnant and lactating goats, and kids, need more grain to get sufficient protein and calories. For everyone else, go lightly; porking out on all those carbs can make a goat as fat as a cow. Grain comes in many forms, including commercially produced–there’s even such a thing as Purina® Goat Chow®.

There IS a lot to know about feeding goats a balanced, nutritious diet. But a goat sitter doesn’t need to figure this out on her own. A lot of farmers suggest just portioning out each goat’s rations into separate containers before leaving, so the goat sitter just has to know which goat gets which container. One Goat Spot member, “loggyacreslivestock”, does even more hand holding: “We place each animal’s feed in paper bags and have their name on it, their name on their [feed] pan, their name at their spot to eat and a poster with everyone’s picture prominently displayed inside the barn. That way [sitters] only have to dump a bag in a pan and match it to the goat.” So simple a monkey could do it. (Oh my god wait! Should I start a business where I train monkeys to feed goats?)


Milking is where things could get hairy. If a goat is “in milk”, the goat sitter better know how to finesse an udder. Milking a goat is on my bucket list, meaning I haven’t done it yet but I really want to learn. Having watched an entire film festival’s worth of YouTube videos, I now bring you these instructions. Grab a goat and let’s begin.

1. Milk twice a day, at 12 hour intervals.

from the wonderful web site ThePrairieHomestead.com

2. Most people used some sort of milking stand to keep the goat in optimal milking position. The goat puts her head through an opening to access a feed trough filled with tasty grain. That keeps her busy so she doesn’t get fidgety.


3. Next, wash the udder and teats so whatever crud is on there doesn’t plop into the milk bucket. Plain old water or soapy water seem to do the trick, but if you prefer “convenient, one-step udder preparation in a sturdy yet gentle wipe,” you can use Milk Check Teat Wipes! Talk about a niche product. 

4. Now, let the milking begin. First off, do you tug and yank? No you do not. Do it lovingly. Hold a teat at the top by making a loose ring with your thumb and index finger. Then gently squeeze till it empties, release it, let it refill, repeat. Piece o’cake, the videos promise. You can start off one teat at a time and graduate to double fisted once you’re a pro.

5. To get out the last drops, a few videos recommend “bumping” the teats like a baby goat would, or massaging the udder, which is basically going to second base with your goat. Since other videos don’t bother with these shenanigans, I concluded whether you fondle and tickle your goat is your business, not a required step.

Or…a machine can do the job. Options are as varied as snowflakes. The Goat Spot forum members discussed everything from $1800 industrial quality mechanized milkers to a basic manual pump from manufacturer Udderly EZ (get it?). If you’re a maker type, instructions for DIY versions abound. Some farmers thought a milking device might make the process idiot-proof for a less experienced goat sitter. As an aspiring goat sitter and self-diagnosed idiot myself, I think more moving parts means more ways to muck things up.


Dealing with emergencies

Little Goat
credit: Dave Wild via Flickr, see Creative Commons for usage rights.

If a goat develops a medical problem, it might not even be apparent to someone who doesn’t know goats, or know this particular goat. Animals often hide their weaknesses, making some illness and injury hard to detect. If a goat is sick or hurt, the nearest vet who treats livestock may be far away, and not available for off-hour emergencies. Maybe there’s a large animal vet hospital within reach, maybe not. Also, some said their goats do “naughty” things like escaping their pen, and it could be tricky to round them up again.

While on the lam or even in the presumed safety of their own living quarters, misfortune can strike in many forms. Thorns and splinters can cause festering abscesses. Ingesting a stray nail while feeding can bring on the rare but serious “hardware disease”, which could require surgery. Chowing on certain plants (like vegetation from certain fruit-bearing trees, including cherry and peach) can poison a goat. Overeating can result in a treatable but life-threatening condition called bloat. No wonder goat farmers fret about leaving.

Goats someday…not today

So…a lot to think about for a prospective goat sitter. The more I read, the more I recognize how much preparation and education it takes to become genuinely qualified. I’m not deterred, necessarily…but I’ve become distracted by another tantalizing way to mingle with goats: renting them on Amazon.com. Really. In certain geographic areas you can now hire goats as landscapers. They’ll devour your weeds and pretty up your yard. According to the “Hire a Goat Grazer” page, goats will dine on “thistle, blackberry, English Ivy, kudzu, poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, wisteria” and other garden invaders.

I was so taken with the idea that I dreamed some nearby homeowners were already harboring small herds on their property, and I jealously coveted my neighbors’ goats. The service isn’t available yet in my county. However, local residents may raise livestock if they have at least two acres of land. I’ve joked for years about forming a co-op with neighbors on my cul-de-sac, pooling our land to meet the minimum acreage. No takers yet….

dirty-chick-coverA final thought: In my previous post I wished in vain for farm sitter’s memoir for a behind-the-scenes gawk at the experience. But where is my brain? I just realized I already read–and LOVED–such a book. It’s Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy, who tended a farm in rural New Zealand during the owners’ extended absence and eventually became a hobby farmer herself. HIGHLY recommend. I must re-read.

Do you love goats? Write about goats? Raise goats? Sit goats? Do you have advice for me or your own stories to tell? Share it here!

To Sit, Or Not To Sit (Goats). That Is The Question.


discovermag goat
From Discover Magazine

Everybody knows during the adolescent developmental period just prior to getting boy-crazy, girls go horse-crazy. I went both kinds of crazy (and then some), and then it spread to goats. As I grew up, my pet-goat-in-my-backyard fantasy morphed into something more grandiose, yet possibly more attainable: a hobby farm starring goats as the main attraction.


This oddball longing has even spawned an alter ego–a mud-splattered, overalls-wearing, goat-milking, cheese-making, pastorally blissed-out version of myself. It feels real enough–and it’s been in my head long enough–that I have to ask, do I really want to inhabit this parallel universe? (And if so, for gods’ sake do I have to wear overalls?)

goats for dummiesThe main existential question is…am I truly serious, or am I just f*cking around? After all, though I bought my very own copy of Raising Goats for Dummies (not joking, it’s real), I’ve barely cracked the spine. The main practical question is, how does a goat farmer travel? What would become of her goats while she’s gone? The Dummies book’s index lists vaccinations, but not vacations.

So this week, in honor of Professional Pet Sitters Week 2016 (which runs from March 6 through 12), I wanted to peer into the world of…wait for it…goat farm sitting.

Let’s start broad. Wondering if there really is such a thing as farm sitting? Google it. You’ll find farm sitting opportunities everywhere from MindMyFarm.com (a placement agency), to FarmSittersUSA.com (an ad board), to Care.com (better known, to me anyway, as a source of babysitters). Farm sitting companies advertise in places like LocalHorse.com’s nationwide service directory. In Virginia, where I live, I could hire Top Dogs, a pet AND farm sitting outfit whose services include “feeding/watering and hay, stall cleaning, trough cleaning, pulling manes, trimming, body clipping, grooming, blanketing.” Their minimum per-visit fee for horses and livestock is an affordable-sounding $25. It’s not that much more than I pay someone to scoop the kitty litter.

So clearly farm sitting is a thing. I start wondering if it could me MY thing. I learn from an article by Jennifer Kongs in Mother Earth News, that farm sitting can be good on-the-job training for aspiring farmers. They get to test drive farm life with the comforting knowledge that the experience has a clear end point. I feel a little tingle. There is definitely some romance to this for me.


Isabelle Edwards, discussing farm sitting in Equine Wellness Magazine, runs down the highs and lows of being a professional farm sitter. On the up side, she says, “You get to be around and take care of the animals you enjoy, and get paid to do it. Additionally it allows you to live the rural lifestyle for a bit.” And this is a perennial conundrum for me–how to live a country life and a city life at the same time. Is this an answer?


You have to be willing to put up with some lifestyle impediments, though. As Edwards points out, people with farms are likely to travel on weekends and holidays–the same times you yourself might wish to be free. If you’re farm sitting, you are most emphatically not free–it can be ‘round-the-clock hard work. And the time you spend taking care of someone else’s animals at their home is time you can’t spend with your own animals in your home. Would I need to hire a pet sitter for my own animals while I’m off taking care of someone else’s? Yep, the logistics would need serious contemplation.

I was craving an insider’s view of this whole enterprise–maybe a memoir by a farm sitter? But a search on Amazon.com turned up only books about how to sit in an enlightening way (i.e. zen meditation), why sitting will kill you (i.e. sedentary people die young), and Chief Sitting Bull. Maybe farm sitting is a thing but it’s not yet a Thing? Or maybe people taking care of farms are too damn busy to write a book.

But hang on…when I zeroed in on “goat sitter”, eureka! I discovered the self-published memoir How I Became a Goat Sitter in Ireland by Larry Rosenwinkel–described in Amazon’s “about the author” blurb as a “world traveler, comedic inspirational speaker, four-time marathoner, triathlete, entrepreneur, yoga instructor AND circus aerialist.” What a point of view this renaissance man would have!

Exasperatingly, a “Look Inside” search on “goat” produced only 25 hits, pretty much all preceded by the word “no”–as in “no goats”–until the last line of the last page: “And look, finally, a goat!” Evidently Larry’s book would not deliver a vicarious goat sitting adventure after all.

from petsinthecitymagazine.com “Why Goats Make Great Pets”

But drilling down from farm sitting to goat sitting seemed like a promising route of inquiry–and it was. It led me to gems like TheGoatSpot.net and a goat forum on BackyardChickens.com, where a picture of what it’s really like to sit goats started to take shape.

Tune in next time to see what I found out!

Are YOU My Mother?

pet duck
from CBS Evening News

A couple days ago CBS Evening News aired the story of a little girl who plays mom to a pet duck. The duck lives in her house (wearing a custom-made duck diaper), sleeps in her bed, and follows her wherever she goes–whether it’s to the pond at the park or trick-or-treating or a sleepover party. It’s the story of a beautiful friendship, and a heartwarming illustration of an avian instinct called filial imprinting. (Watch the video at the bottom!)

P1020500To be precise, we’re not talking about all birds–just precocial, nidifugous (“nest-fleeing”) birds. These are fancy terms for birds that were born ready: fully feathered, able to bust out of the nest at the first opportunity. The most common examples are waterfowl–ducks, geese and the like. Contrast this with our stock mental image of bare-fleshed, open-beaked nestlings waiting helplessly for mama bird to deposit regurgitated worms into their mouths. Nidifugous birds would call them candy-asses.

So precocial, nidifugous birds have this natural drive to venture out. But if they didn’t have a mechanism that impelled them to follow a leader, they might waddle off in all directions, including into the hungry jaws of their predators–turtles, raccoons, foxes, big fish, and the list goes on. In these species’ distant evolutionary past, such mavericks and heedless wanderers were weeded out; they bumbled into danger and didn’t live to reproduce. Those that played it safe by velcro-ing themselves to mom were more likely to survive to adulthood, and produce offspring that shared their mother-following tendencies.

dog-with-ducklingsOver time, filial imprinting–the instinct to attach to their mother and follow her everywhere–became deeply ingrained in nidifugous birds. This survival imperative is so strong that, if their biological mother is absent at the time imprinting would naturally occur, chicks will imprint on the first moving object they see. Konrad Lorenz, one of the most influential animal behavior scholars in history, identified this phenomenon and then manipulated it to amusing (and enlightening) effect. He found he could get chicks to imprint on him, his boots, other animals, and even a box traveling atop a model train. In each case the birds toddled after these surrogate “imprintees” as devotedly as they’d’ve trailed their own mother.


fly away home

Manipulating the process of filial imprinting hasn’t just been done for scientific discovery, or laughs. It’s also been an effective tool in wildlife conservation. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was attempting to establish a second migrating population of endangered whooping cranes, they induced chicks to imprint on an ultralight plane, and then had them fly behind the plane to their designated wintering grounds. Having learned the route this way, the cranes returned to their breeding grounds unassisted. If you’ve seen the movie “Fly Away Home”, based on a true story, this approach will sound delightfully familiar.
baby bird and cow

A whimsical look at imprinting can be found within the pages of a favorite childhood classic, Are You My Mother? A baby bird hatches while his mom is off searching for food. Finding himself alone, he naively strikes out on quest to find her. But he doesn’t know what she looks like; he hasn’t imprinted on her yet. To him, it’s equally plausible that a cow, an airplane, and a snorting piece of heavy construction equipment might answer affirmatively to his pleading question, “Are you my mother?” It’s probably a good thing all those non-mother entities were sitting still; if they’d sprung into motion, he’d probably have followed. Then the baby bird might’ve ended up imprinting on, say, the cat. And the story would’ve had a far different ending indeed.



Mange: Ugly Duckling Stories

Most of us have heard of mange, but we don’t necessarily know what it is, and we may never have actually laid eyes on it. I’d never seen it till I worked at an inner city animal shelter, where dogs with mange were regular guests. In the worst cases, dogs were almost hairless, their naked skin red as a sunburn, raw and angry, crusty and scaly, scabby and oozy. They looked forlorn, forsaken, and if I’m honest, pretty gross.

Tommy, a three month old stray with severe Demodex mange.

And every time I met one, I fell deeply in love. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a sad story.

Maybelle, another mangy puppy, nearly bald.
Tommy, wrapped in my sweatshirt, napping under my desk.

How did these dogs get this way? And could such sad stories end well? (Spoiler alert: Yes–they’ll live happily ever after.)

Ick! What IS mange?

Mange is a nasty skin infection whose tell-tale sign is fur loss. The culprit is a microscopic, parasitic mite–a rotten little stinker with eight legs (yep, an arachnid, like a spider) that takes up residence in hair follicles. There are two main types of mange in dogs. Sarcoptic mange is caused by Sarcoptes scabei, the same species we can thank for scabies in people. Demodex mange comes from an infestation of Demodex canis mites.  This is the kind we saw routinely at my shelter, so that’s what we’ll look at.

Most dogs have a modest-sized colony of Demodex mites hanging out in their skin, just minding their own business. A strong immune system keeps the mite population under control, fending off mange. When it’s weakened, though–e.g. by malnutrition–mite numbers can balloon, and mange takes hold. Our shelter dogs with mange were usually pretty skinny, which could explain their susceptibility. There are also genetic factors that can make dogs more vulnerable to mange.

Hungry Maybelle, feasting on hot dogs.

(Side note: You don’t even want to know what mites are living on you, but there are plenty. Same deal, though; as long as you’re healthy, you’ll probably never hear from them.)

eyelash mite

OK, I couldn’t resist. This is Demodex folliculorum, the near spittin’ image of Demodex canis. But guess where this beast from hell lives? In your EYELASHES! Well, maybe not in yours. But probably.

Baths and more baths

Mange is diagnosed by scraping the skin with a scalpel, smearing whatever you come up with onto a slide, and checking it out under a microscope. Once you know you’re dealing with Demodex, it’s time to start a laborious series of medicated baths, spaced two weeks apart. Curing mange takes time, usually three months of active treatment at a minimum, and up to seven months for severe or resistant cases. “Cured” means a full year of negative skin scrapes after the final treatment.

So it’s no walk in the park, for the dog or the dog’s people. But visible improvement is fast and steady, and full recovery is the norm. And demodectic mange can’t be passed to other dogs, other animals, or people. So don’t delay–kiss a mangy dog today!


Happy endings for mangy mutts

Tommy spent a few months living with an awesome foster mom, plumped up and grew back all his hair, and got adopted.
Maybelle got adopted within a week of arriving at the shelter. Who could resist that face?

For more information, check out PetMD, WebMD. To adopt a wonderful dog, with or without mange, visit the Washington Humane Society.


Siamese Cats: Feline Mood Rings

I’ve been thinking about how cats get their markings. My brother once told me someone told him it has something to do with temperature. That always stuck with me, but…the temperature of what, exactly? I pictured a tangle of kitten fetuses squished up against each other in utero. I imagined different splotches of color spreading across swaths of their fur depending on how and where each one was snuggled up against another. Maybe it worked sort of like a mood ring? A whimsical notion but almost certainly deeply flawed.

When I looked into the matter, I found I was pretty far afield. The temperature thing definitely doesn’t apply to feline coat markings across the boards. But it wasn’t a complete red herring. Temperature comes into play in a specific form of albinism that produces the trademark “point” coloration of Siamese cats (and their similarly patterned brethren–the Himalayans, Burmese, Tonkinese, Balinese, etc.).


There’s an enzyme, tyrosinase, whose job is to make melanin–the pigment that gives fur its color. In Siamese cats, the gene that makes tyrosinase is a clunker; the resulting enzyme doesn’t work at the regular body temperature of cats. Result: No color. But on the bits of the body that are cooler–the ears, face, tail and paws–tyrosinase behaves normally. The result is that striking contrast between the light torso and dark point areas.

And there is an in utero aspect that’s worth mentioning. Because unborn kittens in the womb are kept so uniformly toasty-warm, Siamese kittens are solid white when make their debut. Their dark points don’t start to emerge till a few weeks after birth.


Throughout their lives, temperature will continue to influence the shades of Siamese cats’ coats. If fur has to be shaved, for example for a veterinary procedure, it will commonly grow back dark. That’s because the skin temperature when “bald” is cooler, and therefore the screwed up enzyme is able to produce melanin. It’ll fade when the skin is furry again and therefore warmer. I even saw an anecdote about a cat who liked to lounge on a heat register and developed a very light patch of fur corresponding to the shape of the vent. If a Siamese cat spends a lot of time outdoors, its coat may lighten in the summer and darken in the winter. The mnemonic “cooler=color, warmer=whiter” helps me remember this intriguing relationship between temperature and pigment.

Must be chilly in their house! http://www.globalanimal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Siamese-Cats.jpg

Do you have a Siamese cat? Ever notice any color shifting?