Category Archives: animals

Rat Race

Sometimes it’s better to remain in the dark.

I’ve always enjoyed running in the pre-dawn hours, and though I always wear a headlamp, I seldom turn it on.

The darkness is where I’m most comfortable while running, and there’s great peace and beauty found at that time of day. There’s nothing like pounding the pavement on a clear, cool morning with no wind. Sometimes the moon is out, throwing a sharp shadow on the road as you trudge along. On days like that you can hear things more clearly and odors of wood smoke and pine linger in the air. It’s inspiring and fills you with energy.

And then you kick something on the road, and you’re like, “Oh, fuck.”

My years of experience have taught me that when you stumble across a soft object on a dark road, it’s never a bag full of money, no, it’s usually a dead critter.

This happened recently, and when I switched on the headlamp, a plump rat was revealed. It was a healthy looking creature who must have come from the fields that line the road. I’m guessing he was killed by another animal, rather than struck by a car, because he was in very good shape — very good shape for a dead rat, that is.

Your very first thought at this moment is to see if there’s anything on your shoe, such as blood or other rat residue. No? Thank God for that.

Oh, well, switch off the light and move along. With many miles ahead and behind, you’re bound to trip over a rat or two sooner or later

Hindsight is 20/20

It’s very satisfying to look back on the year and know that you successfully fulfilled your New Year’s resolution. Mine for 2019? Eat more beans.

Yes, beans. I can’t tell you how many cans of beans I’ve popped open over the past twelve months, but this was clearly the year of the legume. Black beans, kidney beans, cannellini, pinto beans. I didn’t eat them right out of the can, like a hobo, but the prep was always rather spartan. Mostly for lunch, always drained and rinsed, mixed with a little salsa, leftover chicken, or whatever I could throw in there.

Today, I bid farewell to the year with kidney beans with some rotisserie turkey breast from Hannaford.

What else about the year, besides the beans?

I’ve grown more grateful of how blessed I am to have a beautiful family who love me – and sometimes my feelings toward those I care about bubble up in surprising ways. I’ve had to assure more than one person on the receiving end that I’m not dying or in the midst of a crisis.

A laser-like focus on what’s really important in my life caused me to set some things aside that were not a productive use of my time. Fewer tweets. Not much blogging. Hardly any local talk radio. Less and less TV. And I don’t feel that I’m missing anything.

I’ve remained relatively healthy for a man my age. I attribute this to a heightened awareness that the grim reaper is lurking behind every tree. I still run, but I’ve also added weight lifting to the mix, something I’ve never done in all my years. It’s humbling to discover how weak you are, but the slow and steady progress is rewarding.

Also of note, this year did not seem to zip by like so many others. Is it possible that time is slowing down? Let’s hope so.

Owly McBeal

Finally, a word about the ailing barred owl I rescued off the street in Albany. We originally called her Hoota, but I later decided that Owly McBeal is a better name. She spent two months in rehab at a local vet’s office, but they never exactly figured out what was wrong with her. They think Owly may have hit the side of a building, but maybe she was just weary. Perhaps owls get worn down by the day-to-day humdrum of owlhood, the way life grinds away at us sometimes. It could be she just needed a new perspective, a shot in the arm (wing?) to help her see her life and the world with a fresh eye.

Either way, she’s off somewhere in the wild now. When I stand on my back porch at night, I can hear barred owls calling from the woods. Maybe Owly McBeal is there, peering out into the darkness, ready to fly into another year.

Owl In a Box

In Albany, it’s not unusual to see a scraggly figure huddled against a downtown office building. But a downtrodden soul I encountered early one recent morning wasn’t clutching a cardboard sign. It was an owl.

A barred owl to be exact, common in these parts, but not commonly found sitting on a city sidewalk in broad daylight. You don’t need to know much about owls to know that this was a problem.

WTF, now?

As it happens, I went on an owl prowl in March at the Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville. Before we headed out to roam the woods, a wildlife rehabilitator gave a short lecture and showed live owls in her care.

Owls, she said, are commonly hit by cars or hurt by flying into things. What should we do if we find one injured? Carefully put it in a box and find someone who can help. So I went upstairs to the office for a box.

I folded her in a blanket and lifted her into the box. She was compliant, I was nervous. It was probably the first time for us both.

Amazingly, it only took a few calls and less than 10 minutes before I had a plan. The wildlife rehabilitator I contacted sent me to a local vet’s office that would take in the owl and manage its care.

I should probably mention that I taped the box shut before departing. Having an owl get loose in your car on the Thruway would not be good, though it would make for an interesting news story.

The owl — a Facebook friend dubbed her Hoota — is doing fine. She was not about to die, as I feared, nor did she have any serious trauma. The vet’s office thinks she may have flown into the side of the building and been stunned. Today, a week later, she’s under observation before they decide on releasing her.

Owls mostly move through the night unnoticed. If your lucky, you’ll hear one or see it fly past silently in the dark. They want or need nothing from us, but on occasion, we are the only option.

House Bird

Someone’s going to die.

That was my first thought when a bird fluttered past my head and into the house at 4:30 a few morings ago. It had spent the night nestled in a wreath on our front door, and woke with a start when I stepped out for my run.

I thought other things of course, namely, “Holy crap, there’s a bird in my house” — but the sense of dread fell over me like a shroud.

There are many superstitions involving birds. Good luck, bad luck, strokes of fortune in every direction. Most involve the type of bird and their behavior, and sometimes, a certain number of birds is significant. A bird in the house can have many different meanings, but the one we hear most is about death.

My ancestors believed in fairies and the evil eye, but we are more modern people who are not troubled by such nonsese.

Aren’t we?

Oh, and the bird. It flew back and forth across the house a few times and was almost nabbed by the cat when it landed on the floor. After a few minutes, I managed to steer it out the side door. Luck was with the bird.

Tickaphobe

There are a special pair of pants I pull on when working around the yard. They’re made of a quick-drying fabric and have lots of pockets for all my crap, but that’s not what makes them special. The great attribute these pants have is something I added: a heavy coating of permethrin spray that literally stops ticks in their tracks.

Yes, ticks freak me out.

This time of year, I try to avoid areas likely to be infested and obsessively check myself after working outdoors. Even after all that, it may not matter: I’m convinced that the tick who gets me will leap off one of the dogs and onto me as I sleep.

Now there’s another risk, one that in some ways is worse than Lyme disease: a tick-born sugar molecule called alpha-gal that may cause you to become allergic to red meat.

Right. Not a virus, not a bacteria, but a sugar molecule. And it makes your body revolt against itself.

The carrier is the lone star tick, a variety that’s been working its way north and in recent years started showing up in New York. I’d heard of the tick and this alarming condition before, but it was  this episode of Radiolab on public radio really got me worried.

Someday they’ll figure out a way to get this tick thing under control.

Won’t they?

Until then just spray and pray and hope the ticks don’t get you. How ironic that in a world of big risks, something so tiny may be our undoing.

Cat Tale

A reader asks:

Hi Rob,

I was thinking about starting up a cat rental business. How did that go for you? Did you run into problems?

Thanks,
Tim

Yes, more than nine years later, people are still inquiring about my fictitious cat rental business.

It all started with a goofy blog post in 2010 about offering my cats up for rent to control mice. It was just a joke: why go through the trouble of owning a cat when you can rent one to de-mouse your house? We had three cats at the time, which if you ask me, is two cats too many — but it would be great if they could bring in some income. Suddenly the litter boxes, vet visits, and pricey food seem more tolerable. OK, maybe not ha-ha funny.

All this time later, people still leave comments on the blog post and send emails about cat rental. Another comment came in today:

Maybe I’m just being played here, but if you search “cat rental mice,” the post does turn up high in the results.

Who knows. By the way, Mia — the last remaining cat of the three — has been a bit of a disappointment in the mousing department. She’s certainly not worth $100 per week.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs

My name is Rob and I own a cat. But wait, I also have a dog!

Look, I usually go my own way with head held high, but the matter of cats and dogs stirs some uneasy feelings. There’s a subtle prejudice in our culture about men with cats that’s cut with sexism and old stereotypes. In a nutshell, it’s the idea that cats are feminine, dogs are masculine and a guy with a cat — particularly a single guy — is not a manly man.

Don’t get mad at me, I’m just telling you what I’ve observed. And if you don’t believe it, read what Kristi Gustafson Barlette wrote on the topic. She stopped just shy of calling it “creepy,” for God’s sake.

You might think that as a married man with a dog none of this would phase me, but the cat stigma has affected my behavior. Here’s the thing: when I go to the pet store and buy two dozen cans of cat food, I’m always sure to throw in a dog item so the clerk doesn’t judge me over my pet proclivity.

Dog treats, dog toys, various dog accessories and dog chewy things — as long as it’s clearly for a dog. I’ve even held up an item and said to the cashier, “My DOG is going to love this!”

Yes, that’s nuts.

What can I say? Blame society for this cruel view of men and cats. It benefits no one — except maybe for my dog. She loves it.

Top Dogs

Our dog, Scarlett, has a small repertoire of tricks — certainly enough to impress visitors and to qualify her as the best trained dog in our neighborhood.

But when it comes to training dogs, I’ve never seen anything like what I saw in Scotland.

At a Leault Farm, just off the road between Edinburgh and Inverness, shepherd Neil Ross trots out a gang of border collies who move sheep exactly where he wants them in a vast field. But what makes this truly amazing is that he controls individual dogs on command.

With a combination of words and whistles, one dog will jump up and race hundreds of yards away and loop around the sheep. Then, on command, the dog will drive the sheep where Ross wants them. With more shouts and whistles he’ll send a different dog out on another route — then another and another.

It’s uncanny.

After the herding, you see how sheep are sheared – you can give it a try, if you like. The dogs wander around and socialize with the visitors; they’re calm and friendly – which is unusual for intense working dogs.

Aside from the beat up Range Rover, it could have been a hundred years ago. The lush green fields, the sheep, the dogs. A visit to this farm gives you a peek at a way of life that’s endangered on every side.

Neil Ross was born in the house on the farm, and he told us his kids are taught at home, far from “the nonsense they learn in school about the environment and politics.” That turned a few heads, but I can’t say I blame him.

NOTE: If your interested in rural life in the UK, I recommend A Shepehrd’s Life by James Rebanks. It’s a beautifully written book.

Maddy, Not Daddy

My wife called our son to tell him the dog died. We were on our way home from the vet, and were both pretty upset.

“I’m calling to tell you Maddy died.”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Daddy died?”

The connection was not great — it took about a minute to sort out who was dead — and it was a terrible phone call over all. It’s funny now, but at the time, not so much.

Maddy

So, Maddy died. She was nine-years-old and we had no idea she was walking around with a tumor growing inside of her. One day she was herself, and the next day she was lethargic and wouldn’t eat. She was bleeding inside and that was creating pressure on her heart. It was literally squeezing the life out of her.

The vet cried as much as we did when she gave us the news that there was nothing to be done. And just like that she was gone.

Our older dog, Scarlett, has been glued to my side since this happened. She always paid a great deal of attention to me, but now she doesn’t leave me alone for a minute. I don’t know what dogs feel, but she’s feeling something.

Maddy loved our walks in Thacher Park. Early in the morning, the park is deserted and most days you won’t see a soul. We’d take the dogs off leash and let them run up and down the trails and explore the woods. I know, it’s against the rules.

Maddy’s ashes are going up to the park, where we spent so many hours. I’m sure they have some sort of rule about that too — but rules be damned. Off the leash one last time, through the woods and away like the wind.