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Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Problems in Our Own Backyard:: Lions and Elephants and Children

I believe that we are each responsible for what goes on in our own backyards and that we should stay out of other people's business. This includes taking care of our own animals, our own children and our own lawn chores, and staying on our own side of the fence, even if we disagree with how someone else is gardening, pruning, raising his own children or training his dog. It also means that we should come to the defense of our neighbors when they are under attack by outsiders -- even  the government  -- but we should not intervene in domestic disputes on the other side of the fence. This is the essence of being a good neighbor.

Somebody killed a lion in Zimbabwe -- and people who pretend to be animal lovers are up in arms and asking for his head. But when the government of the State of Ohio confiscated, killed and then dissolved the corpse of an American lion, there was no such outrage. Nobody is calling for the death of the head of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

What is the difference? In the one case, it was a lion far away killed by a hunter. In the other case, it was a lion owned by an American and killed by the government. Why is it that the case of Leo the Lion has provoked no outrage? Is somebody orchestrating the public's feelings?

I remember a similar situation back in 1993, only it did not involve lions. It was about men, women and children. The government of the United States laid siege to the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, and in the name of saving children, burned the place to the ground with all the men, women and children inside it.

At about the same time, a lot of bad things were happening to people in Bosnia.

But most of the intelligent, intellectual and "enlightened"  I knew at the time, who lived in Houston, Texas and went to Rice University, were enraged about the atrocities in Bosnia, which were far, far away, and they did not care at all what was happening in their own backyard, in Waco, Texas, which was only a three hour drive away. They could have saved the children at Mt. Carmel, whereas they could have done nothing about the people in Bosnia. I am not saying what was happening in Bosnia was good, but it wasn't our business. What happened in Waco was our business, because it was our government that was doing it, using agents hired with our money and weapons bought with our taxes -- and they were doing it in our name!

The principle in both cases is the same: We are responsible for what happens to American children and American lions and tigers and chimpanzees, when it is our government that is doing it. We are not responsible for what happens overseas.

 Many animals are on the verge of extinction in Africa. There is nothing we can do about it. But we can stop making it hard for those private people who keep these animals and breed them and help them thrive here in the United States at their own expense and using their own means.

We can't save every child and every animal in the world. But what we can and should do is prevent our tax money from being used to keep American citizens from taking care of their own animals and their own children using their own funds. We should do this, because it is happening in our own backyard, and we have the means to stop it. And if we don't stop it, we are part of the problem.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Green Emergency

While I was away on the trip to Bloomington, the grass in the backyard grew a little higher than is comfortable, and when I got back, I had a lot of things to get caught up on.

The backyard at its worst with Brownie

 There were torrential rains for over a month, so I could not use the expedient of not watering the lawn to slow its growth.  I was behind on lawn chores for a while, but I went at it for the past three days full force with garden shears and a reel mower, and now things are back to normal.

The backyard under control with Leo

You might say that I now have a manicured lawn, if by "manicured", you mean that it was all done by hand, as opposed to motorized machines. But if you mean that it is perfect, then manicured is probably not the word for it. Also, I did use store bought implements, so it was not really by hand.

The implements 

One of the reasons I don't let the professional mowers in the backyard is that having strangers there would be upsetting to Bow. Another reason is that he hates engine sounds. He hates the vacuum cleaner, too.

I like these flowers that grow by themselves in the yard by the fence and the wall, so I did not mow them down

But truthfully speaking, if I have to do it myself, I would rather do it using hand powered tools, because I find it hard to control a motorized weed wacker and the average motorized push mower is hard for me to start. I have little girl hands,  I'm not super muscular, and I can't handle anything with too much kick-back,  This is also the reason I prefer low caliber guns to high. You have to know your physical limitations and pace yourself, if you are going to accomplish anything on your own.

I went out to mow every time that Bow asked to go outside, so he could see what I was doing, and I could see what he was doing. He wasn't always happy that I was out there mowing and not paying attention to him, but he was good. He did not misbehave.

The leaf Bow did not use. It was greener yesterday.

Yesterday morning, when I was almost finished with my work, Bow suddenly had to use the potty. It was number two, and he sat there waiting for me to come in and help him wipe. But I was almost done with my mowing and had just a little more to do, and I did not want to stop while I was in the swing of things. So I picked up a green leaf and passed it through the grid and said to Bow: "Bow, could you just use this leaf to wipe yourself? I can't come in just now."

He looked at the leaf with a very doubtful expression, because after all, he is a civilized chimpanzee, and he is used to facial tissue, not leaves. "Use the leaf to wipe yourself!" I urged.

Bow did not do as I  asked. This, however, does not mean that he did not understand what I said. Sometimes, Bow just thinks he has a better idea. For some reason, in language comprehension tests, this aspect of language and communication is not accounted for.

Bow spotted a brown, dead leaf -- much smaller, but closer to him -- on the concrete floor and used that to wipe himself. Then he got off the potty and looked at his hand, to make sure it was clean. He is very fastidious.

Later when I came in to empty the potty and inspect everything, I saw that Bow had done a pretty good job with that tiny, dead leaf. Maybe green is not always more clean!

We are so used to modern amenities, that sometimes we forget what can be accomplished with much less. My daughter thinks I need a gym membership in order to stay fit. But I can assure you I exercised a lot of  unused muscles in the three days I took to mow the backyard.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Relaxing Sights and Sounds of Nature

When Bow asks to go out in the early morning, sometimes it is not to exercise, or display or listen to the sound of his own voice. It is not to swing on his swing, or lie on his bench, or to tease the dogs. Sometimes he just sits and listens to the sounds of nature.

It may not seem as if he is doing anything important, but not doing anything important may be just exactly the point. And doing that in nature, as opposed to in an urban environment, has been found to be helpful to ward off anxiety and depression. 

How does that work, exactly? I don't think it is the sound of silence. On the contrary,  the soft, repetitive sounds of bird calls and insect noises have been programmed into us to let us know when all is well. The ambient noise of a forest or savanna is different when disaster is about to strike, and a preternatural silence ensues. So long as everything is business as usual, we hear the soothing sounds of all the other animals going about their daily lives. This sound of ordinary busyness is very soothing.

 But in a big city we hear alarming noises all the time. Cars honking, alarms going off, sirens and other loud engine noises that sound like explosions. Some of these sounds are actually designed to be alarming and to alert us to emergencies, but when you have so many people together in such a small space, there are constant emergencies, until life begins to feel like one great big emergency. There is no time to relax and listen to the crickets chirping.

Many of my interns have told me that one of the first things they noticed on my property was how utterly quiet it was. But it's not really quiet. It's just not loud. There are noises all the time, but they are peaceful noises. Like the kind the cicada makes.

I saw this amazing creature in my front yard last night. I did not know what it was, but I was impressed by the extreme gravity and purposefulness of the insect as it made its way from the sidewalk to my lawn.

I posted pictures on Facebook and was told it was a cicada shell. People often find the empty shells attached to trees. But this shell was still very much occupied.

Cicada season is about to begin and with it all those natural, repetitive sounds.

 I would love for Bow to have full access to the wild land that is just outside the outer pen. But even under our current, less than perfect arrangement, he does get to enjoy nature in a way that very few modern human beings can do.

It's not quite paradise yet, perhaps, but it is nice.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Example of Liberia

It has been very hot out for the past few days. The sun casts heavy shadows, and everything seems slow.

Even the little butterflies on my long internal road look lazy.

They congregate there in small groups, and then they line up, as if getting ready for a race.

"On your mark, get set, go!" they seem to be saying. And then they all fly off at once.

But even though they all take off at the same time, there are always some that are faster and some that are slower. No two are the same.

No matter how similar they look, and how perfectly lined up they seem to have been, and how well synchronized their start is, they still each have their different pace and speed and destination.

No matter how superficially similar, no two chimpanzees are alike, either. And no single "solution" of the chimpanzee "problem" is going to perfectly cover every case.

Some are literate, and others are not.

Some are domesticated and some are wild. Some are imprisoned, and some are free. Some are gainfully employed, and others are asking for a handout.

Photo Credit: The Daily Mail, UK
Chimpanzeessin Liberia, abandoned by their captors, beg for a handout

I've been thinking a lot about Liberia lately. Not just the chimpanzees in Liberia, but also the entire history of that country.

If you would like to read a news item about chimpanzees in Liberia abandoned by the New York Blood Center, here is the news source I have seen:

The short version of the story is this: In 1974 the New York Blood Center captured wild chimpanzees and infected them with diseases deadly to humans while keeping them on six little islands in Liberia. The chimpanzees, who had been self-supporting up to that point, became entirely dependent on their captors for food and all of life's necessities. In 2005 the New York Blood Center abandoned their research project, but they promised to care for the captive chimpanzees for life. Ten years later, the funds for the "lifetime care" have run out. Sixty-six adult chimpanzees and one baby are now begging for food. They have not learned how to become self-supporting again. They wait for humans to come to their island and feed them, greeting them with outstretched hands and hugging those who help them.

This is a very moving, very distressing story, and here are the lessons we can learn from this;

  1. It is easy to become dependent and hard to learn to be self supporting again. You cannot just set slaves free and expect them to know what to do, 
  2. Bad things can and do happen to chimpanzees in Africa all the time. Sending chimps to Africa does not guarantee them a happy or "natural" life.
  3. Banning medical research on chimpanzees in America will not prevent American organizations from conducting such research abroad.
  4. When the funding for research on chimpanzees is cut, chimpanzees find it hard to make a living. 
  5. Sixty-six adult chimpanzees, who could easily attack and kill the few men who come to their island, instead hug them and are grateful for the food they bring. If chimpanzees were stupid wild animals who cannot control their violent impulses no matter the circumstances, how could this be happening? 
I am not saying this in support of medical research on chimpanzees, but you have to realize that anytime any activity involving chimpanzees is banned, that is going to be hard on chimpanzees from an economic standpoint. If you ban medical research, medical research companies are going to dump their chimps. If you ban circuses, circuses are going to lay off their chimps. If you ban films in which chimpanzees are allowed to play chimpanzees, giving those choice roles to human actors and CGI constructs, then chimpanzee actors are going to be out of work. And if you ban the private ownership of chimpanzees, then nobody will feed the chimps that they don't own anymore.

People who want to cut off funding to chimpanzees in every possible endeavor in the United States are not "friends of chimpanzees", no matter how humanely they couch their propaganda. They are not trying to "liberate" chimpanzees. They want to get rid of them. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Liberia. Because those particular chimpanzees from the New York Blood Center are in Liberia, I have been reviewing the history of Liberia, and the motives of the Americans who sponsored the Liberia project seem to me to be parallel to the motives of those people who are currently campaigning for chimpanzees to be allowed to exist only in Africa.

From the Wikipedia:

The Founding of Liberia in the early 1800s was motivated by the domestic politics of slavery and race in the United States as well as by U.S. foreign policy interests. In 1816, a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society to deal with the problem of the growing number of free Blacks in the United States by resettling them in Africa. The resulting state of Liberia would become the second (after Haiti) Black republic in the world at that time.[21]
Why was the growing number of free blacks in the United States in the early 1800s seen as a problem by the white men who founded the American Colonization Society? Wasn't it a good thing that more and more blacks in America were becoming free? There can be only one answer: the people interested in resettling free blacks in Africa were racist. Free blacks in America were those successful men and women who despite all the disadvantages they were under managed to assimilate into American society and become self-supporting -- some of them even wealthy. This normal process of upward mobility had been ongoing in the colonies even before the American Revolution. 

Some of the men who joined the American Colonization Society were Northerners who resented free blacks, because they did as well as or better than free whites. Some of them were Southerners who resented the example free blacks set for their slaves. This was before the Civil War, and many of those people would end up on opposite sides of a very bitter struggle that could have been entirely prevented if the natural process of manumission had been allowed to take its course. Today, in the schools, we are being taught that if you are black, the only reason you are free is because of the Emancipation Proclamation. But many black Americans had free ancestors in the US long before the Civil War. They did not need anybody to set them free, because they had gained their freedom on their own.

So what does this have to do with chimpanzees? Today, in America, the people who work to prevent chimpanzees from earning a living come from two camps:

  • Those who hate chimpanzees and fear them as wild animals who kill humans indiscriminately and without regard to circumstance. They just want them far, far away.
  • Those who adore chimpanzees as wild savages, but think they should not be domesticated, educated or allowed to work. 
The two camps may seem as different as the two groups that formed the American Colonization Society. But their motives are at base the same: they are for apartheid, and they want to destroy chimpanzees in America.

I am not writing this to complain about Liberia. Like Israel, Liberia was one of those 19th century experiments in founding new countries that have both positive and negative results. Nobody is suggesting that Liberia should be disbanded, any more than I am suggesting that all chimpanzees should live in the US. But I think by now everybody agrees that just because Liberia exists, that does not mean there should not be black Americans in America. Or that just because Israel exists, there should not be Jews in America. 

I once knew a man from Liberia. I met him in college. We both liked poetry. But he liked the poetry of Marcus Aurelius, while I favored Kipling. So we each went our separate ways.

No two butterflies are the same. Remember that. It will stand you in good stead. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015


If I had to choose a single quality to describe Bow, I would say that he is flexible.

Bow is an easy-going fellow, slow to anger and with a knack for forgiving others and an uncanny ability to ask for forgiveness in return and to get it, too. I have seen Bow get angry, but I have seen him apologize just as easily. His apologies are real -- at the moment of apology, he means it. And he is great at bringing about reconciliations, which is something most of the humans I know are not too good at. He does not hold a grudge.

Bow's lips are malleable, being able to take on almost any shape.

He can practically turn them inside out.

Just when you think they will never go back to normal, he returns to his usual careless grin.

Even his muscular strength is imbued with an amazing flexibility. Have you ever seen someone bounce up and down on a concrete floor with such ease?

Bow can go from a gentle, relaxed leisure time to an energized display to an after-exercise reverie in a matter of four minutes flat. It's great exercise, it's aerobic, and it also allows him to blow off any steam he needs to without endangering himself or others.

Yes, Bow is strong. He certainly is also very agile. But the quality that amazes me the most is his flexibility. He is beyond limber. He is like rubber! And that's a great survival trait, I think.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Self-Selecting Butterflies

You might think that when I go out taking pictures of butterflies, I choose the prettiest specimens to photograph. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many gorgeous butterflies flit right past me, never pausing long enough for me to even get a chance at a picture. The ones I eventually photograph and film are the ones who will stay still for a spell  -- at least long enough for me to not only notice them but also to get ready to focus on their antics.

The butterfly in the video clip above seemed to want me to notice. It was modeling for me, flapping its wings and turning around in a circle, almost  auditioning to play the role of a butterfly. And if I were casting, it would surely have gotten the part!

What we see is only what they allow us to see, no more, no less. Some butterflies are shy and some are hams. And some look much more brilliantly attractive when in flight than at rest.

This tiny fellow has wings that are blue on top and white underneath. When the wings are folded, as they generally are when it rests on a flower, the butterfly looks white and blends in with the Virginia Mountain Mint.

But when it spreads out its wings to fly, the blue color is revealed in a split second splash.

I've spent a lot of time chasing the tiny blue butterflies in the air only to lose them when they landed somewhere. Because once they land, they look completely different.

In the video above, if you have enough patience, you can see the transformation for yourself. But don't get distracted. There are other insects in the shot, such as this brilliant green fly.

They say that we see only what we want to see   -- that something can be staring us right in the face, and if we are not mentally ready to see it, we won't. But the other side of the coin is that sometimes we see something we never expected to see, and we are so blown away by it, that we forget about what it was we were supposed to be doing.

It is good to be disciplined, but it also helps to be open to what is actually happening, rather than what we thought was going to happen.

You can have a well designed experiment with chimpanzees set up to prove or disprove a stated hypothesis. That would be a good way to get reputable data and funding and grants and publication. You can take pictures of what you set out to take pictures of. and then ignore all the wonderful things that are actually happening with your chimpanzee. Or you can pay attention to self-selecting acts of obvious intelligence.

In real life, things rarely go according to plan, but there are wonderful surprises! This is one of those things that each of us has to discover individually at our own pace. It cannot be done by committee.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Counting Our Blessings

The last time I picked wild plums, there were four of them ripe all at the same time. Count them, four!

Bow enjoys the wild plums much more than I do. He savors them. He takes a bite and then examines what is left, and he eats some more, and then he studies the pit.

When Bow has four blackberries to eat, they just tumble into his mouth all at once, and they are gone. But if Bow has four wild plums, it takes a while.

This past weekend I had occasion to visit the closest mall with my daughter and her friend for a birthday shopping spree. But for me, there was nothing in the stores that I wanted to buy. The mall was full of clothing outlets, jewelry stores, perfumeries, and confectioner's shops. And there were people in the middle of it all hawking baseball cards. I went into a lot of stores and saw nothing that I wanted, and so eventually I sat down and played with my phone, looking at old pictures.

Sitting outside the mall
When I was younger, my favorite three stores to visit at the mall were the bookstore, the toy store and the pet store. But there were no bookstores at the mall, anymore. There was no pet store. And the only thing that could pass for a toy store was the Build-a-Bear Workshop. Gone were the old fashioned toy shops displaying all sizes and shapes of dolls in beautiful clothing, toy trains, hobby airplanes or wooden wagons and rocking horses. That is a thing of the past. But there were flies. Everywhere you went, flies swarmed. What is the role of flies in a modern, air-conditioned mall?

Nobody spoke to me, except one little old lady who sat on a bench next to me at one point. She started off the conversation saying there was nothing in the stores worth buying. I agreed. She said they were sparkly things of no value. I agreed. Then she asked: "Do you know Jesus?" Oh, dear. I always attract religious fanatics. I don't know why. She handed me her tract.

Vacuum County

Whenever someone tries to sell me something, I try to sell them something back. So I told her about my novel Vacuum County, which is based on the Biblical story of Nabal the Carmelite. We started talking about David and Samuel and Saul, and the meeting with the witch at Endor. My new acquaintance told me that there are some things in the Old Testament that don't make sense to us, because some other books have been left out. For instance, the reason Saul was required to execute all the civilians, including women and children and cattle, he captured (I Samuel 15: 2-3, 20) -- was because they were really descended from demons. "I don't go in for killing people just because of their race," I told her, and she shook her head at me. Obviously, if they were descended from demons, that's completely different.

That is what is called "demonizing the enemy." We are still doing it today. But as much as I don't share the woman's views on genocide, I had to agree with her that our economy is doomed.  I love material things, and I used to like going to the mall. But none of the material things offered at the mall now have any attraction for me. I'd rather go shopping for material things on my own property.

A hidden purple cone flower
Every day I discover hidden treasure, like this lone purple cone flower that grew up out of nothing by the lagoon.

It is past the season for coneflowers, and I did not plant any. But here it is.  Or how about these rose pinks out in the pasture?

Or this strange creature on a black-eyed Susan?

If I devote enough time to the task, I can even come back with enough blackberries for dessert.

Sure, there are insects out there vying with me for the blackberries, but they are much more colorful and interesting than the flies in the mall. So at the moment, at the risk of sounding devout, I am actually counting my blessings.