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Freedom

A raven came in last week with a bad wing. Other than punching a talon through my little finger, he was amazingly gentle and calm. Ravens are sentient and have facial recognition and it was erie how he looked directly at me while I tended him. I put him in the fawn pen and by the time the snow started, there were three peacocks and a duck wanting to join him. I let them in and they all got along fine.

For a couple of days, I made him fried eggs and chicken, then when the sun was out, I opened the top door so he would have fresh air and not get to warm. I didn’t think he could get out of it. We ran to town and when I came back, no raven. I found him high up in the trees at the back of the yard, on the other side of the fence. He was quite content and eating buds, so I tossed some eggs and chicken over the fence each day. Since it is such a tangle of downed trees and brush, he moved about quite well, climbing through the trees.

Yesterday, I went outside and heard the rattle call of a raven, I looked up and there he was watching me. Today, as I cleaned the garden, I could see him working his way close to the fence. Sure enough, I heard the rattle call. I talked to him and went back to work after tossing a few more eggs. Later I was working in a diffrent area and sure enough, he appeared in a nearby tree. That was when I realised, that he makes the call for me and not Jimmy.

Before he escaped,I had intended to see if Wings of Wonder wanted him for an educational bird. I knew his wing would never heal and he’d spend the rest of his life in captivity. It wasn’t something I felt good about, but sometimes they bond with humans and do well.

He obviously, has chosen diffrently. He chose his fate and frankly, I would rather see him live free, even if he can’t fly. Evidently he is finding his way without the wing. He knows I’ll feed him and is fairly safe from preditors. His life may not be as long as it would in captivity, but he is free and sometimes, that is everything.

It’s amazing what we will risk for freedom. I know, I would choose the same. Don’t keep me safe and contained, let me face the consequences of my choices. I would rather live one day in the sun than a year in a cage.

Coming Home

Tonight, as I was sitting on the couch thinking of stuff I should be doing, a cat quietly climbed into my lap. Now, a cat on your lap is certainly not an occasion in this house, after all, we have four, but this was a special moment. Momcat was abandoned in our neighborhood about 6 years ago. She lived in the wild, under or in and shelter she could find. Twice a year, she had a littler of kittens. Few survived. I did what I could for her by putting out food and insulating an area of the porch for her. Gradually, she came to trust me enough to sit with her and occasionally touch her. You could always feel her ribs through her rough, grimy fur.

One summer, she showed up on the porch with two healthy kittens and one sickly one who was half their size. I fed them and talked to them and when I came back outside from a phone call, she had left the sickly kitten behind. I didn’t see her or the other kittens for weeks. I cared for the kitten and she became my beloved Bedbug.

It came to the point that I could no longer watch her have kittens and know that they would die or grow up to decimate the songbirds and baby bunnies. She needed to be spayed. We caught her in a live trap and soon realized that she was already pregnant again. I kept her in a large cage and tamed the kittens when they were born. Each went to a loving home and it was time to deal with Momcat….She was not happy and as soon as she could, she escaped into the wild again.

This time it was different though. She knew the house was safe and warm. Last winter, she would come in through the doggy door to eat and sleep and occasionally get a good scratch or pet. As soon as it warmed up, she moved back outside.

Winter came early this year and with the first snow, Momcat was in the house. But it was different. She started venturing past the laundry room and We would see her sitting in the living room staring at us. Then she started to play..with anything and everything. She horded the cat toys in places only known to her and would bring them out to play when she wanted. She was remembering what it was like to be a house cat, a pet, in a safe and warm environment.

That brings us to tonight. Tired from Kung Fu and a day of Christmas decorating, I was sitting on the couch. Momcat was on the arm of the loveseat staring at me. I raised my hand and wiggled my fingers in invitation and to my surprise, she came to the couch. I scratched and petted as she purred. Her fur is thick and you can feel no ribs. Slowly, she climbed into my lap and snuggled into the blanket, purring even louder. Occasionally, she would look up into my eyes as if she were saying “you’re mine”. I told her she was mine and I was hers and that she would never be cold or hungry again, but I think she already knew that. She is home. She is finally home.

I have the feeling that there will be four cats in my bed tonight instead of three. We’ll be warm and that’s the way we like it.

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.

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.

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.

Randomness and life

Today is one of those days where I am struck by the total randomness of life. Oh, I know there are going to be people who will insist that it is all planed and that everything has a reason and God puts obstacles in our lives so we can grow. The worst of the platitudes, I think, is that God is testing us. Sorry, I can’t buy any of that anymore. Shit happens. No good, no evil. Just shit happening all the time. If we are lucky, it’s good shit. If we aren’t, well, we have two choices…deal with it or not. This is life.

The past month has not been easy. Ups and downs like a roller coaster, one where you don’t know if it is finished at the end or you will go hurtling into space. Today, I got handed a cup of lousy shit.

I woke up to the sun with an unusual amount of pain (even for me) Cramps so bad last night that it tore muscles in my thigh and left bruises. But it was sunny and warm and It would be a lite day of Dr’s appointments and physical therapy. The canning was caught up and I thought maybe I could get some sewing done before tonight’s class. I was even running on time for a change. Then I looked for the deer to give them their morning bottle.

Three were outside the window and as the fourth came up I could see that it was dragging a badly broken leg. A deer hardly ever gets a minor break. Their beautiful delicate legs break in two. Only a flap of skin was holding it on. Not a vet, not a surgeon, not even the God people pray to, could fix it.

My heart dropped, my stomach rolled and I ran in to vomit. None of this helped the doe now lying under the forsythia bush. I needed to take action. I called my husband to see if he could put her down. After so much time close to these animals, I’m just not sure I could do it unless there was no other choice. He told me to go to my appointment and he would come home and take care of it.

I wanted to give her one last bottle, but Nosey has always been the shy one and she struggled to her feet. I was afraid that she would leave the yard and James wouldn’t be able to find her. she might suffer alone in the woods till some thing killed and ate her. I didn’t want it to end that way. I opened the gates and called the others for their bottles. Nosey came in the yard, but would not eat. She lay near the chicken coop and the others went to be with her. I said goodbye as best as one ever can and said a prayer for her next life.

She was still there when my husband came home shortly after. He dispatched her as gently as he could and buried her. I thought later that we should have taken her body to the woods and left it to feed other animals. It seems somehow disrespectful, to simply put her in the ground.

I went to my appointments and when I was alone in the car, it hit me. She had struggled to get back home to me. Even with the excruciating pain of her broken leg, she came HOME. She trusted me to fix her or free her from pain. So many of the animals that I have raised, have come home mortally injured or ill, just to die where they felt safe.

I had a goose once, who came as a baby with a broken wing. When it was grown, I drove it to a pond not far away, where I knew it would have open water and other geese for company. It lived there for two years until one day, I found it standing patiently by the gate. I let him in and he went to his favorite spot and settled down. I found it near its untouched food and water dish two days later. Its head was tucked under its wing like it was sleeping, but it wasn’t. It had died in the night. Did it know it was dying? Was that why it came home? I never saw any indication of illness when it came, yet it walked over a mile to get back home to die.

Home, that magical place where you live….and hope to die peacefully surrounded by what you love. If animals can indeed love, then there must be love for me, just as I have for them. This unnatural, cross species connection we have, somehow lasts. In whatever memory they possess, there is an indelible spot for me and for home.

As I cried in the car I thought, I can’t do this any more. It just hurts too bad. Someone else can take over and deal with all the blood and shit and death. I want out.

The rest of the day was not as sunny, or so it seemed to me. It passed in a cold fog and I functioned only as needed or expected. Then tonight, in the middle of Karate class, someone brought me a shoebox with a very tiny, very cold baby squirrel. I sat with it in my hands as it warmed and began to nuzzle and lick my thumbs. We made soft little squirrel sounds to each other and it fell asleep when I tucked it in my pocket.

It sucked down the warm milk when we got home and I wondered how this would end. I don’t care. It will end as it will end. It all begins with home and it grows with love and a chance for life and freedom in the wild. But always, there will be home and there will be someone to take away their pain. I’m not going anywhere….no matter what shit comes my way.