The Lit Maven

Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

HorseshoeWe repaired some drains on the outside of our house recently and that lead to an extensive overhaul of the gardens.  While digging, I found a horseshoe.  We own almost an acre on a property that was once luscious farmland.  The horseshoe was at least 28 years old (as long as our part of the neighborhood was there) encrusted with rust and cemented with clay from the soil.   When was the horseshoe lost?  What was the horse’s name? Did he pull a tractor or a carriage? Did the farmer swear in anger at the loss of the shoe to his horse’s hoof or did he shrug his shoulders and think of it as another small annoyance in another busy day? How much of an expense in time and money was it to get the shoe replaced?  Did he replace the shoe himself or have it done by a farrier?  It’s amazing that the shoe was not unearthed during the house building and even more amazing that I had been living there, raking and planting for 26 years and did not find it earlier.  The horse has passed on and I’m sure the farmer has, too.  The farmer’s complaints about a bit more work to do in re-shoeing his animal, the animal’s discomfort at losing a shoe, the muck that grabbed the shoe and separated it from its owner have all faded, but I have the horseshoe.  I’ve tried in vain to clean it, but the rust is embedded now in the metal.  There are some parts of it that were flush against a hoof and I rub these every now and then and wonder at a more simplistic time in this place.

PrancerChairOur cat Prancer takes his job seriously.  He is the gatekeeper of the house, protector of the estate, guardian of the mansion.  While he looks innocent – the round amber eyes, the wide-striped nose, the fluffy, pure white bib and paws — he is actually a skilled and precise protector.  After two-plus decades of owning cats (or, of them owning me), I am always amazed by their behavior.  I think I have them figured out, then they throw me a pitch that, honestly, is impossible to  hit.  We had the misfortune of attracting a small grey and white cat to our property this past spring and summer.  To this day, I have no idea where he came from, to whom he belonged, or where he has gone since.  I just know that he wreaked havoc in Prancer’s well-balanced life.  “Grey”, as I call him, would nonchalantly slink up our driveway, looking straight ahead and suddenly stop – 2-3 yards in front of Prancer.  They would stare each other down, mewling in that oddly cadenced caterwauling that screams out, “Fight a-comin’!”  The first time I heard it, I went outside.   Grey ran when he saw me with Prancer in tow.   Prancer caught up with him and for a few seconds, there was nothing to be seen except rolling bodies and literal flying fur.  Grey managed to escape and ran for his life – again, followed closely by Prancer.  Prancer returned to the house an hour later – a thin red scratch on his otherwise-white nose.  Two days later, he had an abscess on his face which led us to the vet and ten days of antibiotics.  This problem repeated itself four times in the next few weeks – bite marks on the flank and on the chest mostly.  When our other, more shy, cat would go outside during this period, Prancer would hiss and push him back toward the door.  I believed this was a protective behavior since Todd is not prone to defend himself.   I queried neighbors and, although several had seen Grey, they did not know where he had come from.  As suddenly as it began, it ended.  I have not seen Grey for over a month now, but the questions remain:  Is he feral (doubt:  he seemed well-fed and cared for)?  Why would he come to our property knowing there is an aggressive protector there?  What happened to him?  Did Prancer hurt or even kill him?  Did the owners forbid him from going outside?  The questions have answers – but not in the human realm, only in the feline.

I am not one to sing the praises of insects, although I have been known to gently pick up spiders found in my house and toss them out the backdoor unharmed. I like ladybugs (especially when they protect my rose bushes from aphids) and think that lightning bugs (fireflies to some) are magical. Every year, I make it a point to catch at least one lightning bug and hold it in my hand for just a moment before allowing it to creep up my fingers and, after watching it perch for a second or two, wishing it well as it flies off with tail alight. It’s one of those summer joys that adulthood diminishes. Another summer joy is the cicada. As if humans cannot feel the intense heat of a typical July day in Philadelphia, we are reminded by the buzzing of these big insects. There are over 2500 species of cicada in the world, but, since I’ve lived in Pennsylvania all my life, I know of only one – dark with transparent wings and a long-winded buzzer that adds a pleasant sound to an otherwise silent summer day. These are considered periodical cicadas since they make sudden appearances. They have the distinction of being the longest-lived insect in North America, discovered over 300 years ago. In some regions, they are called locusts, but they are unrelated to those biblical pests; instead they are related to leafhoppers and froghoppers or spittlebugs. Like these cousins, cicadas have crazy looking pointy things (proboscis) under their heads that they insert into tree bark or leaves to sample the sap. They are non-threatening to humans, but can mistake a human arm or leg as a tree limb and – watch out! – you can get inadvertently punctured. No harm done and no viciousness meant, but it may be a good idea to shake off your visitor quickly. Cicadas also have a tendency to leave their exoskeletons on trees after molting. In case you’ve never seen this, here is a time-lapse video for your enjoyment. Probably the most noticeable characteristic of a cicada, though, is its song. Let’s take a deeper listen. They’re not singing for us humans, although anyone who has ever heard a cicada song, knows it. Maybe that’s not completely true, though. One of my friends tells the story of the first summer she lived in Pennsylvania. She was born and bred in Massachusetts and never heard a cicada song. The first hot day of her Pennsylvania life, she heard the buzzing. Startled and thinking it was a dangerous situation having something to do with the electrical wires that ran along her backyard, she called the electric company. They arrived prepared to deal with the problem only to identify a cicada as the culprit. The truth is: these little bugs are singing to mate. As Professor Mike Raupp of the University of Maryland says, “It’s all about love for these guys.” Both males and females have tympals, actual parts of their anatomy (abdominals and ribs) that make a sound. It’s a true living musical instrument unlike crickets who rub their wings together (albeit another summer sound I love). Tympals are like a cat’s purring – a sound that resonates deep within the animal and is as beautifully musical as anything man-made. So, before these familiar creatures fade away with the tropical temperatures, enjoy them and know that, even though they are not singing for you, they are filling the still summer air with their own personal music!

Last November, Prancer came into our lives from Petsmart Charities, an in-store adoption program with the vision to find “a lifelong, loving home for every pet”. Prancer turned out to be the perfect kitty for our home. He was found two years before in Delaware roaming in someone’s backyard and spent a year and a half in a foster home with 19 other cats. I had not seen him before my son and I went to pick him up at our local Petsmart store. We had duly filled out all of the paperwork complete with decades long cat histories and veterinarians’ contact information. It took three weeks, but we got our kitty. I opted to adopt an adult cat; Kittens are cute, but prove to be a lot of work to train. I’ve always raised kittens, so this adoption of a mature cat was an adventure. At Petsmart, we took our first look at him through the bars of cat carrier. He is a big tabby male, white paws, white bib and a very distinctive white stripe down his nose. When we transfered him from the foster carrier to ours, I noticed his clipped ear right away. Rather than looking at it in horror, I found that it gave him a roguish, slightly off-balanced look that is adorable. I had assumed that his ear tip went missing during a fight or some other catastrophe that he survived in the Delaware wilds. Wrong! Clipped ears may mean that this cat was a member of the TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) Club. Also known as TTVAR (Trap-Test-Vaccinate-Alter-Release), this practice has advocates and opponents alike. Advocates say that neutering feral cats keeps down the stray animal population in urban areas and minimizes the risk of diseases including rabies, herpes and feline leukemia (which could effect healthy pets); Opponents say that stray cats are a natural predator of endangered species of birds and other small animals and should not be allowed to stay in the wild. In addition, they can spread parasitic diseases like ringworm and roundworm to healthy pets and humans. Since outdoor cats’ lifespans average 6-10 years, a single feral cat can potentially kill hundreds of birds, amphibians and rodents in its lifetime. Until I started reading articles and posts about TNR, I thought I was an advocate since the alternative is euthanasia. However, these feral cats more often than not lead miserable lives – out in the scorching heat of summer as well as the dismal cold of winter. Unless a cat finds a good hearted soul who will feed and care for him from afar, he may experience hunger on a regular basis. Feral cats are difficult, often impossible, to domesticate, so chances are they will never be adopted. Our Prancer is a lucky guy. He was young enough to be brought into foster care and grew into a healthy (albeit overweight) adult cat. He is friendly and lovable. He adapted well to our established cat, Todd. Todd has a story of his own. We got him from Rutgers University. A farming family set up a booth at Rutgers Days and gave a litter of kittens to college students who happened by. Although we are happy to have Todd in our midst, I wonder what happened to his littermates. There are hundreds of stray cats in and around the New Brunswick area surrounding the university. These cats are victims of pet owners not neutering their animals then giving away litters to college kids who cannot afford to care for these kittens (sure, anyone can set up a litter box and buy a few cans of food, but what about the hundreds of dollars for the vet?). The students go home for the summer, the parents don’t want the cats and so the poor animals are left behind on the street. The pros and cons of TNR will continue to be debated, but the bottom line is that humans have to take a stand. Don’t take a cat from anybody if you can’t care for it yourself; Do adopt from the ASPCA, a local shelter or a pet adoption agency. If you are lucky, you will find your own Prancer!