3:00 A.M.

For once, I was not upset at a middle of the night phone call. It’s by my bed and I grabbed it before the ring even finished. (I’m one of those odd people who come instantly awake). The young man on the other end apologized profusely about calling so late, but he had his a young skunk and it was injured. You could tell he was close to tears as he described the injury. It did not spray and the back legs had no movement or response, yet seemed to be in no pain. I talked him through a quick exam and determined that the poor little thing had a broken back.
He wanted to know if there was anything I could do for it with a cast or something. he listened patiently as I explained about nerve damage and the pain and problems it would face. He was willing to pay for veterinary care, but understood that it was futile.
I then told him how I believed that animals are all a part of a single spirit and move very easily from one life to the next. There is no attachment and no fear of leaving it. It’s simply a circle and revolves around and around. I even told him of the Mexican legend I was told as a child that every animal we are kind to is waiting at the river for us when we die and will help us cross.
I told him how great his compassion was and that the most compassionate thing he could do is to put the animal down while it was still in shock and not feeling pain. There was a pause and finally he said “It’s ok. I conceal carry, I can do it myself. I stayed on the line and heard the shot. I told him what a wonderful man he was and I hoped he had children some day so he could pass his compassion and thoughtfulness on. I told him to call 911 as soon as he hung up and report that he had fired his gun and where so the police would not have to make an unnecessary response to “gunshot in the night”. Again, he thanked me and hung up.
I lay awake a long time thinking about him and what he had done. Not only did he restore hope for the next generation, but also gave me insight on the type of people who carry guns and why.
This is why I do what I do.

The Terribleness of Zen

Had one of those terrible-beautiful Zen moments today. Most people associate Zen with sitting peacefully, staring at the back of their eyelids. Zen is supposed to make you feel at ease, let you face the world with a slight smile and a gentle heart. It’s not. It’s work to get the mind to that empty state. When it’s clear of the everyday clutter, the realities of life and death and rebirth slide into place. To be “One” with the universe can be beautiful…it can be terrible, but always, always, worth it.

I cleaned the tank where I normally keep the tadpoles I am raising for the goldfish pond. The wild cats and the blue heron have taken most of my frogs and I miss hearing them on summer nights. All winter I have been feeding these future frogs so they will be big enough to put in the pond without the fish eating them.

During all the grebe, blue bill, merganser and other downed duck crisis of the past month, I took to dumping the minnows I’d buy for them in the tank with the tadpoles, so I wouldn’t be trudging to the bait store every day. The ducks are gone and so are the minnows, but the tank was a mess. It was cloudy and green and I couldn’t even see my tiny tadpoles. I managed to drain most of it with a siphon, but the last 6 inches wouldn’t work. I used the carpet cleaner hose to finish as I added more clean water and stirred up the sediments to be sucked out. I was worried about the tadpoles, so I put a small net over the end of the hose. After the water was fairly clear, I started to clean up the mess.

First, I realized that there was more algae than ever, because of the fish excrement, second, I noticed that all the baby snails that had been cleaning up the algae were gone, because the fish ate them. Then I washed out the little net and to my horror I discovered two dead tadpoles stuck in the seam.

Suddenly I saw the sacredness of even the smallest life. I saw how interconnected every thing in that tank was. The snails ate the algae, the fish ate the snails, the birds ate the fish and in the middle of it all were these tiny little creatures that would one day be frogs and sing in my pond. I upset that balance. I interfered and life forms suffered needlessly. I was overcome with sadness and gratitude that nature is the great complicated circle of life and I am part of it. For a moment I could look at the remaining tadpoles in the tank and feel the spring that will come and release the sleeping creatures and plants imprisoned beneath the snow and ice. Closing my eyes, I could smell the softened mud as the turtles and frogs and yes, the tiny tadpoles crawl and wiggle forth towards the light. I could hear the birds sing for joy as they returned to their summer homes. Yes, I could even hear the frogs as they chorused in the goldfish pond.

Even in the grip of this long and brutal winter, I know that spring will come in it’s own time. The earth will bring forth in abundance once more. I just hope it will forgive me for the life of two tiny tadpoles, so carelessly lost.

Good Grebe!

 

During the brief thaws we have in the depth of Michigan winter, I am confronted with  a “griebeious” condition.

There is a bird, a waterfowl to be exact, that resides in the ponds, rivers and lakes of the area. It’s not actually a duck, though people confuse it with one and it isn’t exactly a loon either, though people will swear it is one, even though loons of the area migrate to warmer waters and are three times the size. It’s a Grebe, a bird that not many people have encountered close up, or often even heard of.

A Grebe is a smallish bird, shaped rather like a bowling pin with a beak…a very sharp beak, by the way. It has a grayish, black back with a white neck and breast and sometimes a poofy crest on it’s head. It has no apparent tail like a duck. One of its most striking features is that it has brilliant orange-red eyes. Its oddest feature is its feet. The toes are not webbed like a ducks, but separate from each other. They aren’t exactly like regular bird feet though; they have strange flat toes. It looks a bit like someone stepped on its toes and flattened them.  Then there is the angle of the legs. They sort of stick out at the sides, so everyone that finds one, insists that it is a loon with broken legs. I suspect you can’t quite envision this; it kind of has to be seen to be believed.

Anyway, these one to two pound birds have compact wings, held close to the body on land or above water. They actually look like normal ducks or loons while swimming about peacefully. You can be sure that one or the other of those red eyes is watching below the surface and it’s under the water that the true magic of this creature is exposed. They literally fly under the water using their semi-webbed feet as rudders to steer as they chase their prey. One moment, they are gliding along and the next they disappear below the surface with hardly a ripple. Their narrow wings propel them at tremendous speed and the tail and feet shift their direction at lightning speed as they chase minnows and small fish. They rarely come up with an empty beak. Often they will throw the fish up into the air to align it with their beak and throat and in a flash, it’s gone.

I absolutely love watching Grebes hunt or fly over with that peculiar whistle of their wings. Grebes  inhabit lakes rivers and ponds throughout the area. In the past decades, our winters have been rather mild and these waters don’t always freeze. The little birds swim and dive happily after fish, oblivious to the cold and snow. That is, until their water starts to freeze. The greatest flaw that was created in these birds is their inability to take flight without open water.  Swans are also this way and while I can understand a bird with the size and weight of a swan needing open water to run along like an overloaded DC10, I just don’t get it with Grebes. Regardless, if their water is ice, they are stuck.

Often, I get calls from people who have small ponds. They tell of these little birds swimming in ever shrinking circles as the ice closes in. If someone can’t get to them safely, I tell them to wait till the bird tries to walk out in search of open water. They aren’t hard to follow; they leave trails like mini snow plows as they scoot their way through the snow. Unfortunately, they tire easily, they get hungry quickly and a hungry bird is a cold bird. A cold bird is a dead bird. Too often, these charming little birds are in bad shape when I get them. And need days to weeks of care before they can be released.

An even stranger habit of these guys, is that they like to fly at night. When they are up in the air, they look for dark patches in the snow which would indicate open water to them. A wet pavement on a night with a bright moon is sure to lure unsuspecting Grebes to land, thinking they have found a river. Once on the ground, they are stuck and people will find them sitting or wandering along the road, trying to figure out where the water went.

Regardless of how it happens, each year I end up with a bumper crop of Grebes in the laundry room. Now, I don’t know how much you know about fish eating waterfowl, but there are two major drawbacks. They eat fish….They poop fish. Fish smell much worse going out than in.

Fish are also expensive,  one grebe can go through a dozen bait fish a day. When I’m lucky, I can talk the boys at the local fishing stores to save their dead minnows in the freezer for me. (They think I’m strange, but they do it anyway).  To feed them, I partially fill a large bin with water and toss in a few live fish. Add a grebe and you have the beginnings of a free for all. Once they grab the live fish, it’s easy to convince them that the dead ones are just as good. Part of this plan is that they will poop out the last batch of fish in the water. That part doesn’t work very well. It takes up to four air fresheners to ride in my car this time of year.

This has been a truly unusual winter and we are seeing birds that rarely come to our area. I’ve had calls and moved everything from the normal mergansers and bluebills, to arctic scup and tundra swans. But it’s definitely the grebes that occupy my laundry room the most.

Open water is getting harder and harder to find and one of the few dependable places is near the downtown dam. It’s right by the courthouse and police station. I used to walk the birds down to the water and gently place them in the river, but if I can’t get to the water, I just drop them off the bridge. After an incident last year, I use the bridge method almost exclusively now.

It was a wet February  and the moon had been bright shining on the wet roads each night. It seemed to be raining grebes.  I had been releasing grebes almost every day and this day was no exception. I parked my car near the police station where there was a walkway from some condos directly to the water. Rather than lug the cat carrier containing the bird through the deep snow, I just tucked him under my arm and went for it. The sun was out and was truly beautiful by the river. I tossed the bird in the water and watched as he dove and splashed. He was poking around the rocks under the boardwalk, looking for crayfish and I guess I must have been close to the edge looking down into the swift moving water. I heard a quiet calm voice behind me.

“Ummm mam?” It said gently. “Why don’t you just step back from the edge of the dock and we can talk for a while.”

I was still trying to see what the grebe was after and leaned a little farther. The voice took on a slightly frantic tome.

“Mam, please. Just take a step back. Nothing is too bad that it can’t be worked out”

Now he had my attention. I turned and said “Pardon me?”

It was a young police officer. In fact, I was surprised that they even come that young. He had an extremely worried look on his face and extended his hand to me. Then I got it. Here I was standing kneed deep in snow at the edge of the river, no boots and definitely not dressed like I was a winter walker. I started to laugh. Now he was the one who was confused.

“You think I’ going to jump?” I asked. “Are you nuts? That water is cold enough to kill you!”

“Well, isn’t that why you’re standing by the river?”

“Of course not. I just released a grebe.”

In retrospect, that may not have been the best thing to say.

“A what?”

“A grebe. You know, a bird that swims?”

He was reaching for his radio, I was beginning to get worried that men in white coats would show up with a net waaaaaay bigger than you would need for a bird.

“Really, just look.” I said and leaned back over the edge looking for that damn bird, who had conveniently disappeared.

The poor guy was  looking truly frantic now; I could tell he was already thinking how cold the water was going to be when he went in to rescue the crazy lady.

Just then the grebe popped up to the surface with a silvery fish in it’s beak.

“There!” I said, “There he is”

“Lady, that’s a loon”

“No, no, they just look like loons” I could tell who he thought the loon was around there, so I found myself explaining what makes a loon, a loon and a duck, a duck and a grebe, a grebe. We went through the whole wet roads and snow banks thing, but I still wasn’t sure he was buying it.

“He offered his hand again and I let him help me back through the snow and up the steps. I retrieved my wallet from the car and showed all the proper I.D. Finally he just shook his head and walked away. I breathed a big sigh of relief.  I could just imagine having to call my husband from the lockdown ward of the hospital.

I decided then and there, that the feathered little buggers could fly from the bridge from then on. I wasn’t taking any chances. I prefer coats that the sleeves don’t buckle in back.

There was vindication though.  A few weeks later I got a call from the dispatcher saying that an officer was bring me a bird he found in a snow bank…….guess who it was.

The Rape of Words

I am so frustrated. I started my blog with the dream that somehow, someday, Someone like Ellen DeGeneres might see it and help me support my animals or that somehow in some miracle from an alternate universe, someone would see it and think it was good enough to be published somewhere other than some forgotten corner of the web. It hasn’t happened. I didn’t expect it to. But somewhere along the line, it became a very important voice for me. It was a chance to reclaim my freedom of speech. It gave me a chance to talk (or write) and pretend that people were listening to me and liked what I had to say. It was a place where no one (as yet) told me I was dumb, or wrong or wasting my time. The one comment I got from a stranger telling me she liked it and I was a good writer, kept me going for days, but then something happened. Someone else started speaking with my voice. Sometimes they promote wind power and alternate energy, sometimes they try and sell something, often they don’t even speak in English. None of this has anything to do with animals or wild life rehab or me. Someone has stolen my voice and it no longer belongs just to me. Every day I must go and take these hijacked pages off my blog and every day it makes me a little sadder. There is enough thievery in the world, must they steal my voice?

It makes me wonder if the people who register every day, that I think are actually reading my words, are really just finding a way to put their own in their place. Here I am thinking that someone is listening to me and instead, I am just calling out in the darkness.

WordPress has been of no help. I don’t think there are any live humans that work there, they ark for numbers and codes and things that I don’t even begin to understand. So I just keep removing the posts and there they are again, using my name, stealing my hope.

If anyone can tell me how to get rid of these people and stop them from coming back , please let me know. For now, it is just another way for someone stronger, smarter and with more money to buy a better computer to walk all over me I’m really tired of that. It took me nearly 4 years to put my voice and name back on the internet. I don’t want it taken away again.

In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me. I have a duck in the bath tub who’s run out of minnows.

Jyl Gaskin

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Ice Moon

The ice moon is but a thin crescent of silver in the night sky. Every night for the next few weeks it will grow larger with each rising, just as the ice on the bay grows thicker with the cold. By the middle of next month it will rise full and round and pale as the snows. Then a wondrous thing will happen. As the moon wanes, so will winter. It will be subtle changes, but changes all the same. Heavy snows that have plagued the area since November will give way to ice storms. Ice storms will give way to warm winds. The winds will caress the winter weary land and bit by bit spring will surely come.

Snow has covered the ground for eleven weeks already and winter will keep its iron grip for at least another eight before the first blades of grass turn green. We are more than half way through. The darkest nights are behind us and already I can see changes in the light.

I have crystals hung in my kitchen window. Every morning in the summer I am greeted with dozens of shattered rainbows flitting about the room when I come down the stairs. The rainbows came later and later and paled as autumn came. They disappeared entirely by Thanksgiving.  This morning as I was drinking my second cup of coffee, a single burst of color spectrum flashed across the wall. The sun was back!

I watched in the evening for the sun to go down. It has been so cloudy and dark that we have only seen a handful of sunsets all winter, yet tonight the golden rays slipped under the porch roof and shone in the door. It took the leading on my cut glass widow and projected its intricate pattern on the carpet. As the sun moves into better position, these outlines will cast high on the wall. By June they will be accompanied by the shifting shadows of the leaves on the great walnut tree that stands guard by the drive. Spring is coming!

Seed catalogues cover my kitchen table, their page corners turned down to mark the site of giant green peppers and heritage melons. It’s nearly time to spread the starting medium in the trays and tenderly tuck precious seeds of promise into the soil. It is easy to think of springtime and tilling the warm earth, but I must remember that the time has not yet come. The ice moon is still in the sky and the hunger moon is yet to come.

Of all the moons of the year, the Hunger moon is the one to be feared. Most of the stores put by with the harvest moon will be gone by then, yet the nutritious growth will not have begun. The Hunger moon will witness the cracking and booming of the dying ice, but not the release of the fish to the hungry eagles. Swans will crowd into the mouths of creeks and rivers where the water is open and scant vegetation grows below the surface. Deer will stretch high on their slender legs to reach the last of the tender cedar. Porcupines and possums will paw through the remaining snows hoping to find a wrinkled apple missed before. Birds and squirrels will seek out any stashes of seeds or acorns they may have forgotten. Bellies will rumble in emptiness and the weak will succumb to the cold.

The only animals of the forest that will fatten this time of year will be the coyotes and carrion eaters. Food will be plentiful for them. Emaciated and exhausted deer are easy to run down and devour. The melting snows will reveal frozen carcasses of those who do not survive. The opportunists will be waiting and will clear away the dead before the grass is green. The full hunger moon will reflect down on the whitened bones of those who lost the struggle for winter survival.

I can only imagine how it must have been when our ancestors feared the hunger moon. Fruits, vegetables and salted meats would be nearly exhausted. Flour might not be available for several months when the lakes opened to shipping again. Game would be wary and lean and require more and more time in the cold to find. The cabins must have seemed impossibly small by now with the smoke from the stoves and lanterns greasing the walls. Tempers would be short, patience depleted and doubts of survival would arise. How they must have longed for something as simple as clean clothes or fresh air! It is a wonder that such a place as this, was ever settled at all.

After the Hunger Moon darkens, a fresh new moon will appear. It is known by many names. Sometimes called the Green Bud Moon, trees and shrubs extend their limbs to the warming sun. Their buds enlarge and burst open with the first tiny leaves. This signals that the sap run on the maples is done and their clear sweet lifeblood has become too bitter to harvest.  Others call it the Full Worm Moon, when earthworms begin to move about after the long sleep and their castings on the top of the ground mean that planting is not far off. As The Fish Moon, ice is gone from the rivers and lakes and fat suckers have started their swim upstream to spawn. Perhaps the most meaningful name for this spring moon is The Returning Goose Moon. Canada geese fly north to seek nesting grounds. They break from their long journey and spend the night on the pond behind us. I listen to their noisy arrival and walk down to greet old friends that I have not seen since fall. Spring has come, nature’s children are coming home and those who make the long sleep are emerging from their dens.

Chipmunks scamper across the grass, birds carry twigs to build nests, small squirrel faces peer out of tree cavities. They blink their eyes and squint, unaccustomed to the sunlight. Toads and frogs dig their way out of the mud and dust and wash in the chilly waters. Once cleaned and revived they begin to sing. Ahhh, the chorus of spring! It trills loudly in the darkness, stopped only by and unwelcome visitor to the pond or an unexpected freezing night. They will not be defeated! As soon as sun warms their torpid bodies, they will sing again, reaching a crescendo that pierces long closed windows and doors. It calls out to the whole world.“Spring is here! Spring is here! Spring is here at last!”

Though spring is in my heart, winter holds me still. It will be weeks before it releases me to dance in the sun . In the meantime, I will place my orders for seed; keep my crystals towards the sun and count the remaining moons.

Three French Hens

Three French Hens

Four years ago, my best friend presented me with a large gift box on Christmas Eve. My eyes immediately shifted to the paltry box of cookies I had baked for her gift. Maybe they were from scratch and I did use the expensive chocolate chips, but how could they compare with the wonders that must be in this fabulous box? It’s probably a good thing that my mind was racing as it prevented me from noticing the soggy status of the bottom of the box and the fact that everyone in the room was stifling giggles.

Gullible as I am, I humbly accepted the offering and knelt on the floor to open it. The giggles in the background were suspiciously louder and punctuated with the occasional guffaw and snort of delight. My husband was getting nervous, but I gamely played right into their hands. “What ever could be in here?” I asked with stage presence worthy of an Oscar. “I can’t believe you got me something so big!”

I heard an odd scrambling sound from inside the box and thought better of opening it. I’d been friends with Jannie for over 20 years and knew better than to trust her when she was giggling so hard she snorked. She was snorking up a storm on the couch as her husband Jim sat with one hand over his face while peeking out his fingers. This could turn embarrassingly ugly at any moment.

The box rustled again. Moving back a few steps, I carefully raised the lid and turned away in case anything like a tiger or elephant seal came lunging out. Nothing happened. You could hear a pin drop every guest leaned forward to peer into the now open box. A red feathered head bobbed into view. It looked about for a moment and then hopped up onto the rim of the box. It was a chicken. A Rode Island Red hen to be exact and there were two more still in the box. I looked at Jannie. She was lying across the arm of the sofa with tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks.

“Chickens?” I asked. Chickens for Christmas?” My obvious confusion only stirred the crowd to a higher state of hilarity.

Between paroxysms of laughter my loving and considerate friend managed to choke out “Of course, silly. They are the Three French Hens!”

I could hear my husband’s teeth clench as several people tried to sing the 12 Days of Christmas. The party had been a good one and they soon discovered that consumption of bourbon and wine does nothing to help an already aging memory. I could tell that he was a anticipating the hour long drive home with three chickens sitting in the back seat. The party for him at least, was over.

While the other party guests entertained themselves with the chickens, I helped clear some dishes and cornered my friend to thank her for such a thoughtful and heartfelt gift. She started to giggle again. It was only a matter of time before she was snorking and at our age that usually resulted in a mad dash for the bathroom.. It took a moment for her to regain her composure after she came back. It turned out she explained, that a friend of hers had brought home the hens as chicks when his son’s first grade class hatched them in an incubator. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the family soon found themselves with three full grown chickens living in the laundry room. The lived in town and were in no mind to turn their tiny back yard into a chicken run. The chickens would have to go.

Evidentially, whenever someone who knows me hears the words “It has to go” pertaining to an animal, one name pops into their heads. Unfortunately, that same name also pops right out of their mouth, followed by elaborate plans to deliver said animal to my unsuspecting house. These plans, just witnessed, were a bit more elaborate than most. I was now the proud owner of the Three French Hens. On the spot, I named them Monique, Jeanette and Fi Fi.

Nothing breaks up a party like three chickens in the middle of the living room so we determined it was time to pack up our chickens and go home. I should mention that it is a hour drive from one house to another and enclosing three chickens in a PT Cruiser with the windows rolled up and the heat on can get a little, well, aromatic. By the time we pulled into the drive, we had the windows down and snow blowing through the car.
It was late when we arrived and I had no desire to tromp through the snow to the chicken coop, so we put the hens up for the night in the fawn pent next to the house. When I went out to move them in the morning, they eagerly ran up to me and clustered around my feet. The more I talked to them the happier they were. It was obvious that these were not your run of the mill chickens. These were PET chickens! Now I have stated before that I don’t eat pets and don’t pet what I eat. This meant that the French hens absolutely could not be put in with the common laying flock. Goodness, word might get around that we actually consider chickens food and the French Hens would be mortified. They would stay in the fawn pen and have full run of the yard during the day.

Each morning from then on, I would go out the back door and call “Ladies, where are you” in a lousy French accent and the girls would come running. The normally followed me about the yard and gardens hoping for a tasty treat, but if they were absent all I needed to do was call their names and they would appear. It got so every one talked to them in the silly accents or tried to revive whatever they learned in high school French class. Monique, Jeanette and Fi Fi loved it all and became official back yard ambassadors.

There was one draw back to having the “petite’ amours” loose in the yard. They hid their eggs. It was like and Easter egg hunt on a daily basis. All three hens tended to lay their eggs in the same spot, so if I found one egg, I found three. That was the only advantage. At first, they lay in fairly predictable spots and I easily found them. I would quietly collect their eggs and take them in the house with the rest of the hens production.

Then one day I noticed Monique watching me as I went to their nest and removed their deep brown eggs and slipped them in my pocket. She looked at me, then went to the empty nest and looked there. Again, she looked at me and looked at the nest. She looked at me once again and I detected an evil gleam blooming in her eye. The game was on. Never, would she make it easy again.

Some days I would find eggs, some days I wouldn’t. There were times that I would go several days without finding a single brown oval, and then suddenly I would stumble upon a dozen or more carefully hidden under a bush or garden bench. They never seemed to express an interest in setting on the eggs; they just didn’t want me to have them. Once I went over three weeks without discovering their stash. I had finally decided that either they had stopped laying for some reason or a blue racer snake or raccoon was beating me to them. I was wrong. On a hot July day, I was trying to get to the wading pool in the back corner of the garden shed. I struggled to move the snow blower and nearly stepped on a huge pile of eggs. It was like a great pyramid built of big brown eggs! I knew I they wouldn’t be any good in the heat of summer, so I very carefully gathered them up and disposed of them in the garbage. As I made the last trip, I noticed three red hens peeking around the corner… giggling.

Two summers of daily egg hunts went by. One day I was lying on my stomach trying to reach a stash of eggs under the smokehouse and my husband asked why I just didn’t pen up the chickens and make it easier. Covered in dirt and debris, I rubbed the lump on my head where I had smacked it on the smoke house door. “What, and miss all this fun?” I replied as I proudly held up 6 unbroken eggs. Men just don’t understand.

A fox broke into the yard and took Jeanette the next spring. For their safety, I integrated the remaining two hens into the laying flock in the coop. They seemed to be heartbroken at first, but quickly made friends and became celebrities as the oldest chickens in the coop. Being rather elderly hens, Monique and Fi Fi no longer laid eggs every day, but ever few days I would find their characteristic dark brown eggs in the box. One sunny morning in autumn, I found Fi Fi, expired in the nest box, she had presented me with one final, perfect egg, before dying. We were down to one French Hen.

Time passed and Monique became such constant in the hen house that I almost forgot her origins. She didn’t lay often, but on occasion there would be the beautiful deep brown egg that I knew was hers. She still greeted me whenever I opened the door and I still addressed her in poor French.

Last week, on a cold winter afternoon, I was cleaning the hen house and noticed Monique huddled in the corner. Picking her up, I could feel how thin and frail she had become. Old age had caught up and her time was running out. It seemed wrong to leave her to die in the cold, so I brought her into the house. She started out in a laundry room; she might as well end there.

I found a big plastic tub and filled the bottom with clean pine shavings. Gently placing her in the tub, I moved it next to the hot water heater where she would be warm. She hardly moved all day and I did not expect her to last the night. In the morning I went to check on her and she was standing in the tub looking up at me as if to say “ Croissants se vous pley?” It wasn’t croissants and café’ aut latte, but I got her some scratch and water for breakfast. She ate heartily.

Over the next few days, Monique rallied. Every time someone would pass through the laundry room, they would greet her or offer her a friendly pat. She relished the attention and extra treats and never tried to get out of the tub so I left her there. She was there till Christmas Eve.

Each year of Christmas Eve, it has been tradition for my son and I to stand outside at midnight and listen to the night. As a small child I had told him how the animals receive the gift of speech at midnight. They would sing carols and each would get the chance to whisper in the Baby Jesus’ ear. They would tell him of the people who had been kind to them and those who had not. They would ask blessings and prayers for the ones they loved. If you were there at midnight and listened very carefully, I told him that you would be able to hear them singing in the night. Each year, we take pains to give every animal in the yard, wild or tame extra treats and attention in the days leading up to Christmas. Sometimes we whisper a prayer in their furry or feathered ears to be carried to the baby. Even though I now follow the Buddhist path and my son is grown now and seldom home on Christmas Eve, somehow I still find myself standing in the night and listening.

Tonight was no different. As I was passing through the laundry room to the back door, I noticed that the little red hen was failing. She hardly reacted as I gently picked her up and tucked her under my coat. I carried her out into the back yard with me and stroked her silky feathers. I told her that I was grateful for all eggs she had laid and for her companionship over the years. I whispered in her ear to tell the Baby Jesus, “Thank you.”

We stood there in the silence of the night, with large white snowflakes drifting down. Christmas lights twinkled in the trees and the ground around us sparkled like diamonds. Far off in the distance, I heard the midnight church bells ring. Holding my breath, I swear I heard the whisper of many voices drifting through the air.

I wanted to stand there in the magic of the moment forever, but the cold seeped through my clothes. My reverie broken, I came back in the house and put the small, still body of the red hen in her box and closed the lid. As I went to bed I pictured her, strong and young in a stable, whispering in a baby’s ear.

Hamsters

This morning, the toilet was clogged. Now I’m not sure, but I may be the only woman who immediately thinks of hamsters when the toilet doesn’t work. Here is why…..

Hamsters

I have never been particularly fond off hamsters. Oh granted, they are cute and not much trouble to keep, but I just have a few problems with the little rodents. For starters, they seem to have a tendency to bite the hand that feeds them or cleans their cage, and there’s the food thing. They stuff everything in their cheeks, get it all covered with hamster spit and then tuck it away in their beds. That’s just icky. Then, there is the fact that their testicles are well, absolutely huge. I just can’t find myself becoming attached to any animal whose balls are bigger than its brain. (Men excluded, I guess)

Every once in a while I find myself getting stuck with a hamster. When we lived in navy housing, someone was moving overseas and talked me into taking their three-year-old hamster, “Sweetums”. I figured, what the heck, it’s old, how much longer can it live? (A lot longer than you would think!). I soon discovered that there was NOTHING sweet about “Sweetums”. The rotten little thing would make a dive for your hand every time you reached in its cage and try to sink its little fangs into your finger. More often than not, he succeeded. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but he continuously peed in his food dish requiring someone to reach in there and change it. I began to suspect that his owners requested the overseas duty assignment, just to get away from him.

He simply was not a pleasant animal. Every morning I would go to his cage to cheerfully greet him and he would open one eye and glare at me. We took to calling him “Mr. Personality”. Mr. Personality lived in the laundry room on the back of the dryer for about a year, before old age was merciful to all of us and we found him face down in his food dish one morning. I tried to muster up a tear, but my heart just wasn’t into it. Later when Levi got up, I told him of Mr. P’s demise and he managed to look sorrowful for about the time it took to discover the toy in the new box of cereal.

About half way through his super frosted sugar bombs (or whatever overly sweetened cereal he was obsessed with that week), he announced that he thought Mr. P should have a burial at sea. We had visited the whaling museum the week before and they had shown a short movie about life aboard a whiling ship. A whale had killed one of the seamen and the captain sewed him in a canvas shroud and committed him to the depths of the ocean. I’m not sure why he thought that this was appropriate for a hamster, but I learned early on in mother hood that sometimes, you just don’t want to know. I gave a week, “Um, sure” and sank back into my coffee. I had a million things to do and I’d just have to deal with the expired hamster later.

My husband’s ship was somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Ocean and I was involved in planing the children’s Christmas party for the families in a few weeks. A few other Navy wives came over to finish up the decorations for the hall and of course, they brought their children along. There is one thing you can count on in military housing…wall to wall children. At that moment there were several bouncing off my walls. We told them to do something quiet while we worked. When they complied, I should have worried. A quiet child is a child up to mischief. The peaceful interval was short lived and I sent them all outside to play. As I returned to the Christmas project in the other room, I noticed that Mr. P’s cage was sitting on the floor of the laundry room and felt a guilty pang for not taking care of his remains yet.

We continued to work and the children continued to run in an out of the house getting snacks, tattling on siblings and using the bathroom. It wasn’t long before one child passed by on his way outside and called over his shoulder, “toilet won’t flush!” Since there were two bathrooms, I simply shut the door and added it to the long list of things I’d do later. Every one finally left and “later” had arrived. The first job I tackled was disposition of the hamster body. I looked in his cage, but he wasn’t there. I searched all through the litter, thinking there may have been some miraculous resurrection, but there was no hamster, dead or alive. I tracked Levi down and asked him if he knew what happened to Mr. P. As he went spinning by on the merry-go-round, he said that they already had the funeral and Mr. P was buried. I was impressed by his maturity in taking care of such an event. That must have been why the children were so quiet earlier. Great, I could go make dinner!

About half way through preparing dinner of spaghetti and salad, I remembered the bathroom situation. I grabbed the plunger and headed for the downstairs jon. The kids were right, it didn’t flush. I plunged and flushed again. The water rose to the edge of the bowl and slowly receded. I plunged again. Same situation. I really hated to do it, but I was going to have to call “public works”. The Navy base had several hundred housing units and the maintenance department was called “public works”. We used to joke about the inappropriateness of this title, as they often seemed to do as little work as possible. I always felt rather badly about the jokes, as I knew these men had a lot to put up with in their line of work. Just imagine all the thins that could go wrong with several hundred housing units filled with wives and children who’s husbands were not around to do even the simplest tasks. Like plunging a toilet. I usually tried to give these long suffering workers a break as I figured they had literally “Seen it all”. Not quite.

I called to schedule a work request and they gave me a loose estimate of “some time tomorrow, maybe the next day, definitely before next week”. I was lucky, it was the former. The middle-aged gentleman in gray coveralls showed up around three. He stubbed out the hot ash of his cigar and balanced it on the outside windowsill. I explained that the toiled refused to flush and that I was sure he would need a plumbers snake. He let out a long oh-what-I-put-up-with-sigh and got his tools from the truck. He began a long litany of what he felt were standard toilet clog questions about what possibly might have been flushed that shouldn’t have been. I assured him that I was very careful about things like that and left him to his work.

There was a lot of puffing and grunting and some questionable language drifting out from the bathroom and I did my best to ignore it. I offered coffee or soda, which he politely declined. He emerged for more tools and explained that he would have to take the toilet stool up so he could better access the pipe. There was more puffing and grunting and the language got a bit worse. Suddenly there was absolute silence. I looked up from my paperwork and saw him standing in the doorway. “Lady” he said, “Are you missing a hamster?”

I put on my most innocents of faces. “A hamster? Why no. We don’t even own a hamster” (Well, we didn’t ANYMORE)

He held up a dripping wet wool sock, which I immediately recognized as the half of the hand knit pair of Christmas socks we had purchased on a recent trip to Maine. “Well, I’d thought I’d seen everything I possibly could in a toilet.” He said shaking his head, “But I’ve never, ever, fished out a hamster in a sock”

Just then, Levi came bounding into the house and announced, loud and clear, “Hey! That’s my hamster! He’s supposed to be in the ocean by now.” It’s a good thing that child was still moving because if I could have gotten my hands on him right then, I’d have beaten him with a dead hamster in a sock.

The jig was up. The truth was out. All I could do is hang my head and say “I’m soooo, soooo, sorry. I didn’t know. As God is my witness, I did not know the hamster was in the toilet.”

Somehow, that wonderful patient man cracked the slightest of smiles. “I gotta ask lady, why the sock?’

I explained the whaling museum, the movie and the need for a shroud in burials at sea as my new hero replaced the toilet back on the pipe. He wiped up the floor with one of my hand towels, washed his hands and gathered up his tools. On his way out the door, he retrieved his cigar from the sill and clamped it in his teeth. He turned to me and winked. “Lady, I’m just glad you didn’t have a dog”.

Momcat

It is the first bitter taste of winter tonight, blowing snow, slippery roads and temperatures down in the low teens. The apples started to freeze in their baskets on the porch and I covered all the squash with blankets. As I was closing the house up for the night, turning off lights, making sure doors would not open to a gust of icy wind, I noticed Momcat sleeping in the laundry room. She started to get up and run for the doggy door, but when I tucked a fleece blanket in her box, she settled with a purr.
Momcat is like our own little vagabond or street-cat. She was abandoned in the neighborhood years ago and turned out litter after litter of kittens each summer, few survived besides the ones I was able to capture, tame, sterilize and find homes for. Two of our present cats are her offspring. Finally, just before her last litter was due I managed to capture her and contain her while she gave birth and nursed her kittens. She had a large kennel in the laundry room and at first hissed and backed to the corner each time I came near. Even though she had allowed me limited physical contact while she was wild, she was too angry at being locked up to tolerate my most gentle touch.
The kittens were born and I spent a great deal of time with them to make sure they would be tame enough to be pets instead of wildlings. Gradually, Momcat relaxed again and purred when I scratched her ears. My hope was that she would remember her former life as a housecat and remain with me. I’d allow her to stay and have everything she once had that was so cruelly taken from her. It seemed to be going well until last spring when I decided it was time to put a stop to her endless kittens. I took her to the vet and had her spayed.
She returned to her kennel for a few weeks till I removed her stitches and knew she was mended. I opened the door and she was gone like vapor in the wind. I stood shocked, as the doggy door slowly flapped back and forth at her exit. I assumed that she would be back later after she had gotten over her resentment at me for what I had done. Not a chance. She moved out. She went back to sleeping under the porch and living her life in the wild.
Occasionally we would see her in the laundry room, grabbing some catfood, but as soon as I reached for her, she was a yellow streak headed for the door. She would have none of me. I worried that I would never be forgiven.
Each winter over the years, we cover the porches with thick vinyl to make sort of a sunroom. It keeps the house much warmer, gives me a respite on sunny days and provided a fairly warm place for Momcat and her latest family to sleep. I would keep snug boxes or baskets and food out there and we cut little flaps for her to come and go. It was wonderful for Momcat, but she began inviting other homeless friends and soon I was the unwilling director of a flop house.
It’s all sand under the porch and everyone felt it the perfect litter box. On warm days, you’d open the door and your eyes would water from the smell. This was not exactly working. I was going through ten to twenty pounds of cat food in a week and my song birds were disappearing fast. I knew I had to do something drastic before the next “baby season” started or I would simply be raising and releasing cat food. We started trapping cats. The young ones, I would tame as best I could, have them altered and ship off to willing barn owners. Some of the older ones were beyond this. They bore battle wounds and scars, they refused even the smallest attempts as affection with absolute intolerance, some were riddled with disease. We discussed at length whether we could afford to have them all sterilized and then release them back to the wild. This would completely defeat the purpose of what I was trying to do to save the songbirds and smaller animals that were becoming nearly extinct in my yard. My Buddhist side struggled mightily with my practical side and we finally came to a devastating decision. When I weighed the quality of life that these poor animals had in the wild and the devastation they were causing to the natural wild population of small animals, I decided that sometimes the only option is to terminate life. I was out of money and out of options.
Others may disagree, but I have always felt that animals have a sort of collective spirit; they pass easily from one life to another with little or no attachment to each. In a way, they (especially cats) are perfect little Zen beings. They simply accept what they have at the moment and acknowledge that it may be gone the next, but it will surely come again, somewhere, somehow, sometime else. I lit a great deal of incense as offerings that week. I meditated on what I was doing and accepted full responsibility for the action I would take. I begged the “cat spirit” to forgive me and gave the order to my husband that the remaining cats must be eliminated as humanely as possible.
It felt horrible to put him in the executioner’s position and the only way I could bear it was to remember that the executioner is innocent. He merely carries out his job to the best of his abilities and as long as he bears no malice, his hands remain clean. It was I who would accept the karma of my actions and to this day have not changed my position.
We gently trapped and eliminated the remaining five cats. I knew that I had contributed to the problem, by making it possible for so many cats to survive in the wild, by assisting them with food and shelter. My heart was in the right place, but my interference with the natural order of things had upset the balance of nature. I made sure that I recognized each animal as a living being, asked its forgiveness and prayed for a better life in its next incarnation. It did little to assuage my guild and I wept with each one.
By midsummer, the cat problem outside was under control once more. The oh so prevalent, flea and worm problem we battled, disappeared. Song birds began nesting in the yard and I could feel secure that the little bunnies and squirrels and fledglings I released would have a good chance and reaching independence. Still, Momcat remained. I already had four cats living in the house, so I did not mind so much that she preferred to live outside. We reached an uneasy truce as far as touching goes, (I would not touch her and she would not bite me). Things were, well, OK….sort of.
Every time I saw her, my heart broke a little. She must have been loved at one time. She must have had a home and family with warm beds to sleep on. Someone must have scratched her tummy when she wanted it and there were so many times you could tell she wanted it. She would approach me and look into my eyes, she would rub lightly against my leg and perhaps purr, but as soon as I reached for her, it was hiss and retreat. She would watch through the window as her kittens would receive all the love and affection that she must once have had and I knew that deep inside, somewhere, somehow, she remembered and longed for it once more. She simply could not trust.
I’d stopped trying to force interaction with her. She has food available and warm places to sleep. If she chooses to live outside, that is her prerogative, just as it is mine to worry about her and her comfort. So it was a great blessing to find her inside on this bitter night, sleeping in the box of old quilts and blankets in the back corner. It was even more the blessing that she accepted my intentions and the reward of that tiny purr made my heart soar. I imagine she will be in and out this winter; she has total freedom to come and go and life as she chooses. The porch is completely closed off to her, so she will have to spend more time in the house with me. I’m glad. The other cats will get used to having her here again and I’ll know she is safe and warm….and somehow, I think a little happy.
Welcome home Momcat. Welcome home.

My Father’s Heaven

Today is my father’s birthday. I have no idea how old he would be now, in his eighties, I guess. I’m not even sure how long he has been gone. Time stopped for us the moment he died. He will never age to me and the grief is nearly as raw as the day I got the phone call of his passing. Dad would think this was a perfect day. Though I tend to associate him with raw, rainy days in autumn, today is nearly deer season and there is a layer of what he would call “tracking snow” on the ground. He’d be out in it, looking to see where the deer were bedding down and where they went when they woke up.

I look at the two deer in my back yard right now, begging for their morning handful of candy corn and wonder what he would think about me inviting two, nearly grown deer into my laundry room to warm up. What would he say as the little buck tried to polish his nubby antler buds on the back of my jeans?

I would like to think he’d be proud of me and of what I do. Sometimes I think that he knows I am replacing some of the numbers of the animals he so enjoyed hunting and bringing to the table.

Since today is his birthday, I decided to add this tribute to the blog. It was written several years ago, long before I ever dreamed I would become a practicing Buddhist. At the time, I believed in heaven and hell and all that falls between. Now, I’m not really sure what comes next. I am only positive that there is no hell waiting, that we do not make ourselves. I like to think that maybe heaven is just the place we go to rest before we come back again And have another go at life. Maybe we wait for the people we loved; maybe we come back to them in another form. I hope so; I’d like to meet my dad again.

The greatest gift my father gave me was how peaceful death can be. He was a bit of a son-of-a-bitch in his life. An alcoholic, a man full of fears and a man frustrated somehow, with his lot in life. But beneath this exterior was a heart of gold. He took care of his friends, he loved his family, adored his wife (I used to love the way he looked at her when they were all dressed up and ready to go out). The gold may have been a bit tarnished, especially at the end, but we knew it was there.

He lost his mother, a week or so before he died, his sister was in her own dying process from pancreatic cancer. Grandma was a good old fashioned, God fearing woman. Perhaps a little too much fear of the maker, she so long to meet. She died afraid, struggling to hold on to that last breath of life. They were in the same nursing home, so dad was told of her passing quickly. He didn’t say much, in fact, he didn’t say much for several days. The funeral was held without him and when we stopped to see him afterwards, he just didn’t seem to be there. It was Dad in the bed, but Dad wasn’t there.

A few days later my sister called me and said, “You need to come see this”

Dad was awake. Not only was he awake, but he was talking and joking and being pleasant to everyone. I really did need to see that! When I got to the home (a two hour drive) he was sitting in a patch of sunshine in the hall. (Dad rarely left his room) As the nurses and attendants came by he would speak to them and smile. We noticed that some walked away with tears in their eyes. They knew the same thing we instinctively knew. Dad was dying.

He told my sister that he had talked to grandma. She gently reminded him that she was dead and he responded with “I know that!, but I’ had a long talk with her, and everything is ok. The only thing that matters is what you feel in the end. Everything else is in the past, it’s now that’s important”

Later that day, he sat with my brother and told him that he was looking at two huge white birds, at least six foot tall and a lake that was all misty and he wished he could see it clearer. All my brother saw was two support pillars and a gravel rooftop. I think Dad saw Angels, come to guide his way to the misty lake that would soon be clear and sparkling.

The next day, I returned with my little family, so the boys could say goodbye. Dad was tired, he talked a while about Levi’s football and whether James would be sit his deer stand, since he wouldn’t be there for opening day. He looked at me and asked, “Is there anything you need?”

The man had no money, few possessions, nothing really to give, but what he had always given me…his love. That was all I needed, all I wanted, all I miss. I told him that he had given me everything I could ever need. I thanked him for being Dad. What I couldn’t tell him was that he was giving me the best gift of all. No fear. All our lives, he taught us to be afraid of cars and strangers, of new experiences and risks. Being a fearful man in general, he tried to keep us from the world so we would be safe. I’m glad I didn’t listen very well. What I was hearing now, was what was important. Don’t be afraid of death. It’s just another stage and no one is going to judge you and bring up everything from your past. You simply fill your heart with love and let go.

My brother was there and was concerned that we were wearing Dad out as he seemed to be dozing off. I told him we were staying, what better way for him to fall asleep that listening to his children’s voices, chatting back and forth about normal everyday things, not death and dying. After a while, Dad was asleep and we needed to get back home, I had surgery booked for early the next morning. I kissed him on the forehead and said “I love you Dad”. It was the last time I saw him.

The next day, I called to see how he was before I went into surgery. My sister said he was back into the coma like state, but was stable. I told her I’d be back down the next day. I called periodically throughout the day as I lay on the couch recovering. Each time the answer was the same. “Stable, but unresponsive”

His sister Shirley was there and she was begging him not to die. I think of that poor woman, she had just lost her mother, was losing her brother and would be gone within two months, herself. She was terrified. I was hoping that somehow, she could see the peace and know what he now knew. She didn’t and the nurse came in and suggested that my aunt go get some dinner and give dad a rest. They left and my sister leaned over and whispered in his ear. “It’s ok Dad, she’s gone. You can go now.

And he did. He filled his heart with love and….let go.

MY FATHER’S HEAVEN

My father died on a beautiful June afternoon. He passed quietly, in the nursing home he had resided in since being diagnosed with colon cancer, almost two years before. It was a sad ending for such a strong man who loved the outdoors. He should have died in the woods trailing a downed buck or hunting for pheasants with his favorite dog. It would have seemed more natural for him to drown in a trout stream or tumble down a ravine. But such is not life. He died smelling antiseptic and that evening’s meat loaf instead of the clean air of the Michigan woods.

I was not there as he passed. . I heard no meaningful last words. There was no death bed legacy passed on to me. My brother simply called and told me on the phone. “Dad is dead”, that was it, so mater of fact and finial. There was no funeral, no casket, only an urn on a table in my sister’s home. There was a memorial gathering, but no words were said, no tributes offered. I was not present when the urn was laid in the ground. I didn’t even know the exact location till years afterwards. Psychologists would say that I lacked closure. I only knew that I lacked my father.

The first summer was so hard. It seemed like I could just pick up the phone and ring him, but he would not be there. I felt as though I should still get in the car and make my monthly visit as I had for over a year. I kept noticing things with the family or garden or animals and think “I’ll have to tell Daddy about this”, but there was Daddy to tell. I just could not grasp that I would never see my father again.

One day, for some reason or another that I don’t remember now, was particularly hard. Maybe it was because it was autumn and autumn was Dad’s favorite time of year. September and October were bird and squirrel season and November was the Holy Grail of hunting …Deer Season. Deer season was as big as Christmas around our house. I think Dad only endured the rest of the year because he must, just in order to get to fall. This day was one of those perfect fall days. The air was clean and the sky clear. There was a promise of frost in the air and the leaves were in full color. Trying to take advantage of the last of the nice days, I was out in the garden taking care of things before the coming frost. Instead of picking tomatoes though, I was sitting in the middle of the garden, missing dad.

I heard a raucous noise over head. There above me, was a Bald Eagle being chased and harassed by the crow I had raised the year before. Crows don’t like any raptors, even if they are our national symbol. This particular crow took it as his sworn duty to give chase to any raptor that dared to enter his air space. I watched him worry the huge brown and white bird by repeatedly diving at and in front of it. They worked their way down towards the millpond and disappeared from sight. I decided to take a break from my reverie and investigate.

Crow reappeared and nonchalantly landed on the fence rail on the property line. I nearly turned back, thinking the events were over, but Crow kept clacking his beak and chattering at me so I kept going. Just as I got to the fence and climbed over, he flew to the other side and landed somewhere in the woods. It was so beautiful, that I decided to sit by the water for awhile.

It was late afternoon and the sun was low. There were dark clouds to the south and the golden light illuminated the tops of the brilliantly colored trees in high relief. The bright gold poplars, the crimson maples and the acidic brown oaks were all reflected in the dark mirror of the water. There was a light mist drifting around the edges of the millpond and everything looked soft and surreal.

Looking across the water I noticed that the eagle had landed in the top of a tall dead elm. As I watched he took off and glided down to where he was just skimming the surface of the water. He extended his talons and gracefully scooped up a silvery fish. He carried it to a snag extending from the shore, not 20 feet away from me. The majestic bird raised his shining white head and leveled his gaze at me as if appraising me as a threat. We held each other’s eyes for a moment, then he blinked and lowered his head to consume his fish.

There was a loud caw from across the pond and I looked up to see crow flapping from bush to shrub. A large red doe and her fawn had come to where the stream became pond to drink. Crow hopped about on the ground in front of the half-grown fawn as if inviting it to play. After a few passes by Crow, the fawn gave chase and I watched them play a wilderness version of tag while the doe stood in a bright patch of sunlight just at the edge of the mist that was forming near the shoreline.

There was a rustling in the grass at my feet and I looked down as a fat cottontail hopped in front of me and sat to wash his face. There seemed to be birds singing in every tree, the air smelled of grass and fresh loam and honey. Tiny insects hovered in the air and appeared like glowing specks of light as the sun reflected off their wings. There was not a breath of wind and I no longer felt the autumn chill. I simply sat in absolute awe of my surroundings.

I have never in my life experienced a moment that was so filled with peace and beauty and love. I wanted to hold my breath in attempt to stop time and preserve that moment. It was then that I realized what I was seeing. This was a gift from my father. He was allowing me a glimpse of his heaven. The instant I came to this realization, I felt as though he was there with his arms around me. I knew, at last that he was indeed laid to rest and totally at peace. More importantly, I knew that this life was not the end. I have no doubt that there is indeed a heaven and that for us at least, animals will be a major part of paradise.

All the tears I had refused to cry came pouring out while I sat in the grass. All the bitterness and sorrow flooded the ground. I emptied myself of the intense emotion of his passing and moved on to a new level of grief. I still missed him so much it hurt to breathe, but I knew that it would gradually get better and I would feel whole again. Soon the memories of my father would be tempered with laughter and joy and life would go on.

I have no idea how long I was at the water’s edge. It was nearly dark when I raised my head off my knees. . Every thing was gone but the ebony crow. He seemed to sense my melancholy mood and walked up close to me. He fixed me with one black eye and tilted his head quizzically as if to ask “Are you done yet?” Taking his lead, I got up, dusted off the seat of my pants and took one last look at my surroundings. No golden light, no ethereal mist, no birds singing in the trees and the eagle no longer in sight. It was cold and damp and I wanted to go home. Crow flew above me as I walked back to the house and my by now, hungry family. Just as I opened the back door, he cawed from the distance and I could swear he said, “You are not alone.”

Redemption

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8 weeks old bobcat being rehabed

Redemption Part 1
SO often in life there are things we regret. It is seldom that we get the opportunity to make up for them.
About five years ago, I was caught in an impossible situation where there were no good choices I could make. Someone or something was going to suffer, no matter what I did. It had haunted me since and not a week as passed that I did not think of it.
I got the call from one of my favorite DNR officers asking if I would take a bobcat kitten. It was about six to ten weeks old and healthy. Some young boys had discovered the den in the woods with the kitten playing outside while the mother was gone. They decided it would make a good pet, chassed it down and captured it. Why their mother did not realize the horror of what they had done and immediately send them back, I don’t know. I try to give her the benefit of a doubt and not judge her, but all I can think is that she had no respect for wildlife, our environment…or her child’s safety.
The children kept the cat for several days, treating it like a toy and letting their friends handle and play with it. The cat did what was natural to instinct. It bit; it clawed and tried to get away. Because the boys and their family bragged about what they had done, word soon got to the authorities. The DNR was sent to rescue the cat. The mother was more than ready to relinquish it.
When they called me, I had to stop and think about taking it in. A bobcat kit is a huge undertaking. In the beginning, they are like any other kitten, cute as hell, playful and absolutely loveable. The problems start when you realize that this is a wild animal and not a house cat. The first thing you notice is that instead of a 16 ounce ten week old kitten, its three to four pounds. Next you discover the teeth. They aren’t tiny little milk teeth; they are teeth capable of ripping apart the rabbits that the mother cat brings home. They have claws to match. I once saw a photo of someone who tried keeping bobcats as pets and they had shredded her furniture and trailer walls like no house cat could by sharpening their claws.
Once you get past the teeth and claws, you have to decide just how you are going to teach this cat to live in the wild. Oh sure, they have innate instincts to fall back on, but they also will lose their fear of humans and start going for easy prey like small dogs and house cats. Bobcats absolutely love chicken. People keep chickens in their back yards. A cat with no fear of humans will automatically head for the nearest chicken coop. He doesn’t care if it’s a commercial operation or someone’s pet hens. They are opportunistic feeders, if it’s in their way and not bigger than them, they will eat it. Just this year, I lost 5 baby peacocks to a young bobcat who thought I was running a buffet line just for him.
The teeth and claws didn’t bother me; I have enough scars from wildlife that no one would notice any new ones. The feeding , I could handle, I have chicken and rabbit in the freezer and it would be like a garbage disposal for any animals that came in to injured to save that had been euthanized. Eventually though, I would have to work up to live food, but that is one of the tougher parts of this job that you simply have to face.
It was the housing that set me back a bit. Bobcat kittens stay with their mother for 9 to 10 months. Starting out in a snug den, they remain there for the first few months, never straying more than a few yards from the opening (unless nasty little boys intervene). After that, they travel with their mother within her approximately 5 to 10 square mile territory. Since bobcats are generally solitary animals unless it is mating season, the kit may never see another cat during this period. First, the mother makes the kill while the kittens are watching and then gradually teaches them to hunt on their own. The rest of the cat’s life should be spent deep in the woods hunting rabbits, birds, wood rats and the occasional slow squirrel or fawn. Nine months… that‘s a long time to keep a cat contained.
Cute and tiny as the kitten would be, it would soon grow into a 10 to15 pound junior and stronger than any of the large pens I already had. It was ok, I’d go out and buy hog panels (strong welded wire steel sheets of caging material) a few 4×4 posts and lots of zip ties and we’d be in business.
Yes, it would be a major undertaking to raise this cat to the age where it could be released, but I was more than willing to take on the responsibility. A bobcat is a magnificent animal and is a species that deserves to be kept at healthy population numbers. It would be a lot of work and expensive, but I expected that. What I didn’t expect was what would happen the first time I looked into that kitten’s eyes.
Two Officers came to the house with the cat in a crate in the back of their truck. They donned elbow length leather welders gloves, just to move the crate. (What Was I getting myself into?) The crate was set next to the prepared cage on my studio table and uncovered. There, cowering in the back corner was the most beautiful cat I had ever seen. Still with its kitten speckles and huge eyes turning from baby blue to golden yellow, it stared at me. A low hiss and growl emitted from its throat. The officers offered their gloves and backed up. I declined. If this cat was to be with me for the next 8 months, it was going to have to get used to my smell, my voice, my touch.
I started talking to the kitten in a soothing voice, it looked to be closer to the six week side and I hoped it still had milk teeth. It didn’t know how to sheath its claws yet, so I had a full view of that formidable weapon. I kept talking. Pretty soon its ears rose from their laid-back-against-the-head position. It was listening. Quietly, I opened the door. I thought I heard a gasp from behind me.
It snarled a bit when the door opened, and we gained full sight of the teeth. They were big. They were sharp. I hoped they would not be soon sunk an inch deep in my bare hand. I laid my hand in the bottom of the cage a few inches from the cat. It seemed like forever, but finally, it sniffed. I fervently hoped my fingers no longer smelled like the chicken sandwich I had for lunch. Obviously they didn’t and the cat sat near my hand looking at me.
Oh dear God, those eyes! Everything wild and beautiful was in those eves. No longer clouded by fear, they drew me in and never let me go. Even now, I still see them in my mind. Slowly, I reached up and stroked the cat’s leg with one finger. It accepted the touch. I moved further till I was stroking the cat gently. This time I definitely heard gasps from the gentlemen behind me.
Still ignoring everything else in the room and putting my total focus on the cat, I reached in with both hands and slowly picked it up. It tensed and hissed, but made no move to fight back. I drew the kitten out, held it to my chest and it mewed as if I was its mother. My heartbeat returned to normal as I checked to see if it was a male or female. It was a little girl. Its name would be Barbra. After I placed Barbra in her new roomier cage with climbing shelves, fuzzy blankets and a stuffed bunny, I turned to look at the two officers. Their eyes were wide and their mouths open.
“You are a Goddess!” they said.
And so I have remained to these young men ever since.
I worked with the cat for several days, gaining its trust and handling it. Within a few days, it was a playful as any kitten and just as content. As Barbra settled in, she gained nearly a half pound in the first week. Things were working out. Then one morning before I was even out of bed, I received a call from the DNR in Lansing.
A friend of one of the young boys had been bitten by the cat while it was still their captive. Even though the bite was no worse than any from a house cat and showed no signs of infection or problems, the woman heard that a “friend of a friend of a friend from somewhere in Georgia or maybe North Carolina” had been bitten by a rabid bobcat. True, bobcats attacks of humans are almost unheard of unless the cat is infected with rabies or other problems, but this is northern Michigan and rabies is almost nonexistent in anything but a small number of bats. It didn’t matter, days later; she took her son to the doctor for the almost healed, miniscule bite. By law, the doctor is required to report all animal bites to the health department. If it is a domestic animal, it will be confined for a period of time and if nothing is amiss, all is well. If it is a wild animal that can be captured, it is killed and the head removed and sent to Lansing. There it is cut open and a black light is held over the brain. If it fluoresces (glows), the animal is infected and the person must begin the series of Rabies antibody injections. If the brain is clear, then there is no chance of rabies and the animal was killed for nothing.
They wanted me to turn over the cat. In my opinion, the boys deserved the three injections that would be required…preferably with a dull needle. Even though the officer agreed, the law is the law. He would send someone to come for the cat that afternoon. Then began my agony.
How could I turn this animal that had learned to trust me over to be killed? My whole goal is to preserve life, not destroy it unnecessarily. We all know the cat was healthy, the 14 day waiting period was past, but the law is the law and must be obeyed. I thought about hiding the cat and telling them it had escaped, but it would probably cost me my license to rehabilitate and who would help the animals then? I thought about telling them that it died, but that would be a lie and they would want the remains anyway. My morality and my soul were battling, yet all along, I knew what the choice would be. I would betray the cat to preserve my own moral code.
I fed Barbra extra that morning. I warmed her milk and spent extra time wrestling with her and her bunny. At noon, I closed her cage and walked away. I couldn’t bear to look into those eyes any longer. She could feel something was wrong and I did not want my tension and sadness to affect her.
Four times in my life, I have experienced true and total heartbreak. Not the kind where you break up with your boyfriend and cry for a week, heartbreak. This is the heartbreak that becomes a part of your very soul and haunts you in your dreams.
An officer I had never met came to retrieve the cat at precisely one o’clock in the afternoon. I was outside moving rocks the size of my head and as I tossed one aside to shake his hand, he looked a little nervous. I’m sure he suspected something of the inner struggle I had gone through to turn over the cat and he wanted to get it over as quickly as possible. He was no more comfortable with what needed to be done than I. We went in the studio and he saw Barbra, she hissed and growled at him as he got out his leather gloves. I told him it would not be necessary. I’d put her in the carrier for him. She came to me willingly and licked my face as I held her. I told her I was sorry, so very, very sorry and wished that her next life would be long and healthy and abundant with slow, fat bunnies. She looked into my eyes as if she somehow understood and forgave me. It didn’t make it easier.
The officer and I were both in tears as I put her in the carrier with her fuzzy blankie and beloved stuffed bunny. We walked to the truck and that was the last I saw of both of them.
Weeks later, I received a letter that the report had come from Michigan State University and the brain was clear. Just as we all knew it would be. More than anything I wanted to find those little boys and their mother and say “see! Look what happens when you interfere with nature! You caused this! A beautiful animal is dead because of your ignorance and stupidity!”
Of course, I couldn’t. The boys and their mother never knew the suffering they caused. I doubt they would have cared. They broke the law and faced no consequences. I held to the law and my heart was broken. A year or so later I was to face another crisis and suffer at the hands of the law. I realized that truth meant nothing, laws don’t apply to everyone equally and there is no justice in our system. My faith in our judicial system was completely destroyed.
I ask myself now; would I make the same decision? Would I follow my moral code even though it means nothing to the rest of the world? Yes. I would. I would do the same and betray the cat to tell the truth. It’s the only way I know. It’s the only way I live.

Redemption Part 2
It’s mid October and I was in the middle of planning a dinner for 40 people and getting ready for a trip to California. The past four weeks had been tied up in fundraisers that required everything from collecting scrap metal, peeling the aluminum off of discarded windows to recycle and crawling through a mountain of trash and mouse poop, to retrieve 1012 returnable soda bottles. It was raining torrents and I was trying to both shop for the dinner and pick up some things for the trip. My cell phone rang. It was the DNR.
My favorite officer again, otherwise I’d have let it go to voice mail with the rest of the day’s calls. He had a cat. A small cat, he said, Only 10 or 15 pounds. It had been struck by a car and he thought it had a broken leg. It was pretty groggy and in a crate in the back of his truck. Could I take it and find a vet to treat it.
Getting a veterinarian to treat wildlife is never an easy feat. Getting one to treat a bobcat could really be a challenge. Vets don’t get paid for treating wildlife, many of them won’t even allow them in their clinics, a special certification is required to treat them and not many are willing to obtain it. I try not to bother vets with little things. Just because I work for free, doesn’t mean I expect them to. I know rehabbers who will actually take a chipmunk to the vet and expect them to treat it. Maybe that’s the reason willing vets are so hard to find. When I do find a good one, they are a treasure.
If the cat did indeed, have a broken leg, and it was young, then it might be treatable. Rather than transfer the cat to my car and cause more trauma, I told the officer to sit tight and I’d call him back so he could directly drop the cat off with the vet. This way I could finish my grocery shopping and make the medical appointment I had on time. I’d check in at the vet as soon as I was done.
I ran to the nearest vet that I knew to be wildlife friendly. Their orthopedic man only worked one day a week and this wasn’t it. They gave me a list of names and numbers so I didn’t have to go home and get mine. Sitting in the rainy parking lot, I called vet after vet. It seemed like I was chasing the ortho man from clinic to clinic. Finally, I got to one who not only had x-ray equipment on site, but also did orthopedic work. In a brilliant stroke of luck, he also had the necessary certification for wildlife and ….he was willing to treat the cat! Awesome! Even better his office would be on my way home.
The officer was called and directions were relayed to drop the little cat off at the veterinary clinic. Feeling pretty smug, I went back, finished my shopping, made my appointment (on time) and even took a breather for a cup of coffee. On the way home, I called to check on the cat.
“Just how big did they tell you this cat was?” was the first thing I heard over the phone after identifying myself.
“Ummm, 10 to 15 pounds”, I answered. “It’s just a youngster isn’t it? I distinctly heard laughter in the background.
Since I was almost to the clinic, I hung up and figured I’d sort things out when I got there. Still raining, I was soaked to the bone and stood dripping in the entry while they went for the doctor. He guided me into the back recovery room and pointed to a large wire dog crate. I noted that every seam was reinforced by wire zip ties. Still knocked out by the anesthesia was the biggest bobcat I had ever seen. He completely filled the crate and his short little tail was sticking through the bars. I’m afraid I said some very dirty words.
The vet explained that the cat, now identified as a male, had no broken bones or detectable internal injuries, but did have a mild concussion. He wasn’t sure how long the cat would be out as wildlife frequently reacts differently to anesthesia than domestics. Looking at the cat, I fervently hoped it would be a few more hours, at least.
They had weighed the cat and instead of 15 pounds, it was six ounces shy of 40. An average full grown male bobcat is 25 to 30 pounds, tops. (Another dirty word slipped from my lips) What cage did I have that would hold a cat like this when it woke up? We looked at the x-rays on the screen and the vet pointed out several bits of buckshot, well healed over, in the cat’s shoulder. So, this was not his first run in with humans! Then he asked me how old I thought the cat might be. The best way of aging a wild cat is by the wear on its teeth, the condition of it ears (old male cats have battle scars) and its claws. Praying the cat was still unconscious and not faking; I lifted its head and pulled back the lips. The teeth were gleaming white, none broken, no sign of wear. The canines were at least two inches long. (I suddenly thought of saber tooth tigers.) Squeezing the paws to expose the claws, I saw they were also in perfect condition. There wasn’t a nick or scratch on the ears. This was a cat in his prime and he obviously hadn’t the need to fight for the females. They probably took one look at his handsome visage and fell at his feet.
Once again in the pouring rain, I had to move all the groceries to make room for the large crate. It took three of us to wrestle it into the back of my PT Cruiser and lean on the door to close it. I admit, I drove home in a bit of a daze. I was expecting a large house cat; I was bringing home a lion. This would not go over easily with my husband.
It didn’t. I called him out to see the “kitty” as I called it. He blanched. He said even more dirty words than I had when I saw it. I told him I had it all figured out. We could put together my largest, strongest dog cage and then put it inside the fawn pen next to the house (I’d have preferred it IN the house, but I do give in occasionally). The fawn pen of course, would have to be reinforced with hog panels and every zip tie we owned. He was not convinced.
What followed was an ugly hour and a half of putting the cage together (in the rain) only to find it would not fit through the door of the pen. We took it apart and tried to reassemble it at least three times wrong. I kept running to the car to check the cat’s respiration and reflexes to see if it was waking up. I stroked its head and one eye opened. We were running out of time.
It rained harder. We slogged through the mud retrieving hog panels from the garden and turkey pen. We ran out of zip ties and used coat hangers. Finally the pen was as secure as we could make it and we hauled the cage with the sleepy cat into the pen. Now, how the hell were we going to get him from one cage to the other? My brave husband, in his desire to protect me from the unconscious cat, volunteered to slide him from one to the other. He reached in and grabbed the cat by the scruff of the neck and …it was done. The cat was fine where he was and we were late for our respective martial arts classes. We changed into wonderfully dry uniforms and headed in opposite directions.
To this day, I am not sure that Sifu believed that I was late for Kung Fu class because I was tending to a 40 pound bobcat. All he would have needed to do was sniff me. I distinctly smelled like bobcat….so did my car.
By evening, the cat was awake and not exactly in a good mood. As any animal coming out of anesthesia, he couldn’t quite figure out why his legs wouldn’t work and everything was blurry. I imagine he had a headache the size of Texas too. After my husband went to bed (he was still convinced that the cat was going to escape and eat us in our sleep) I entered the pen and sat by the cage. There was some hissing and growling, but somehow I knew, unequivocally, that this cat was never going to hurt me. I looked into its eyes for any glimmer of the kitten I had given up. Was it her, come back to forgive me? Was she offering me a second chance? Even if it wasn’t her, I knew that this cat had come for a reason. Redemption. This was my chance to make up for what I had done.
How many times in life, do we do something we regret? A callus remark, an opportunity passed by, a road not taken, if we have a conscience, these things often haunt us. A wise man learns from these events and moves on, vowing never to do them again. But…how often do we get the chance to correct them? How often can we make up for them and truly redeem ourselves? This was my moment. I couldn’t save the kitten, but I would save the cat. I vowed that even if it cost my trip to California, I would stay till he was ready to go.
The next week was spent tending to the cat. There was some mild spinal trauma, so it rarely stood as it should. A bobcat’s natural reaction to people is to retreat. This is why they almost never attack people. When I was younger, I rescued a bobcat from a leg hold trap set for fox and mink. My friend the trapper was simply going to kill it, but I pitched such a fit with crying and threats that he told me if I could get it out of the trap, he would let it go. I used a long stick and as the cat retreated away from me as far as it could, I pressed the release on the trap with the stick. Being a very light trap, it didn’t take much and the cat bounded away, not much worse for wear. It never even tried to swat at me. It was much the same with this cat.
As soon as I would enter the pen, he would back to the corner, there would be growls and hisses and he’d slap his front paws on the floor of the cage. I began to notice that the claws were never extended. Every time I brought him a piece of rabbit (my freezer is pretty full of rabbit), he seemed to calm down even more. I would sit or stand by his cage and talk to him. Soon the hissing and growling stopped with me. If anyone else approached within to feet of the pen, he would still threaten to tear them to pieces.
The fawns (well, now grown deer) were still coming to the door each morning for their bottles and I was concerned how they would react to a natural predator being in such close quarters. But as with everything else in this yard, they somehow seemed to understand that he posed no more threat than the chickens pecking about their feet. It is the magic of this place. I don’t understand it, but I don’t question it either.
By the end of the week, the cat was standing properly. There was still a bit of weakness in one front paw, but it appeared to only be a sprain. Someone brought a cottontail to me that had been struck by a car. It did not survive, so we gave it to the cat. First he slept with it, and then devoured half of it. He was getting fat and lazy and I didn’t want his, now healed muscles to atrophy from lack of use. He was healthy. It was time for him to go.
The night before I left for California we decided to release him. Since he had been shot and struck by a car in his former range, we decided that a more remote location might be prudent. There is a large tract of swamp we knew of, where the nearest paved road or house with chickens was miles away and across a river. (Bobcats do NOT like to swim). Being the biggest boy on the block, he would have no problem with rivals for territory. It was the perfect place. We got a pair of six foot poles to fit through the bars so we would not have to put our fingers too close to those gleaming teeth. We were ready.
We inserted to poles, the cat was definitely NOT happy. The teeth marks in my kung fu staff bear witness to that fact. As we attempted to back out of the fawn pen, we remembered….the cage wouldn’t fit through the door. Luckily it did, if we removed the door. The next surprise was that the cage was ½ inch higher that the taillight on the truck topper. We couldn’t get it in the back of the truck. Ok, I decided he could ride on the tailgate with the door of the topper and several straps holding it in place. I didn’t want him getting the dust from the road or being frightened by the trees whizzing by, so I covered the front of the cage with a tarp. My husband loved this idea; he felt it would prevent the cat from remembering the way home and again…eating us in our sleep.
I can only imagine why we looked like. Somewhat of a circus wagon, I suspect. The cat was only visible to cars if they passed us in either direction, but they did it very slowly and stared. Our neighbors took it all in stride. Not much surprises them about me anymore, so they simply waved as we drove down the road with a huge wild beast tied in the back of the truck.
We drove as carefully as possible over seasonal roads and two tracks to reach our destination. Each bump and jostle upset the cat anew and he did what any male cat does when it is frightened. It sprayed. It sprayed streams of jet propelled urine into the back of the truck. It also passed about 4 pounds of digested rabbit through the cage bars. When we stopped and took off the tarp, we both gagged. The cat was fine.
Setting the cage down and removing the poles once more (more teeth marks in my poor fighting staff), we argued about opening the door. My husband was positive that the cat would come charging out and eat at least one of us on the way. I was not afraid. I knew that this cat understood what was going on and would not attack anyone, least of all me. I opened the door and stepped back. The cat stood there. I tried coaxing him with promises of freedom. He lay down. For a moment I considered grabbing his bunny half and throwing it into the brush hoping that he would go after it, but I realized I wanted to see California with two arms. This would take some tough love.
I poked him gently with the staff. He looked at me. My husband got his staff and poked again. This was a different story. The cat turned and snarled with a sound that sent chills up and down our backs. We crossed the sticks and gave a little shove. The cat backed to the door, still attacking the staffs. Then his back paw touched the grass on the outside of the cage. There was a look of utter surprise in its eyes as it whirled around to see that it was free. Before we could even breathe, the cat bounded off into the brush. We could hear the crashing of his progress. He didn’t go far. I could feel him watching us from some autumn olive off to our left.
There are times, when I feel a connection to nature and its children so deeply; it is if I am a very part of it. I saw us through the cats golden eyes. I felt its joy at being free. I could smell the scents as it took stock of it new home. I felt its gratitude and being given a second chance at life. I heard it whisper….”redemption”. Then it was gone.
We emptied the cage as best we could and planned on bleaching and scrubbing it before taking it apart for storage. Retracing our trail through the woods, we emerged into the sunlight and civilization once more. It was hard to believe that I would be on a jet plane headed for the city just hours after I had been in the heart of a magnificent wild beast. I only hope that my husband received even just a piece of what that cat gave me.
I’m at peace with the kitten now. I know that the bobcat spirit has forgiven me and watches over and guides me when I am in the wild. More important….I have forgiven myself. I have been redeemed.