Friday, December 28, 2007

The Beginning

Hi folks!

I never did tell you how I first got involved with the ducks at McKinnon's Pond, so I thought I'd better bring you up to speed! Seven years ago, I moved into a tiny little apartment about a mile away from the pond. The place was so small and dark that I got into the habit of taking walks every day, just to get away from those four walls. The pond was the turning-around point, and for the first few months, I didn't even stop to look at the scenery; I'd just glance over at the water as I turned and headed for home.

More than a few times, I'd see this middle-aged couple standing near the water with a small bag in their hands. At their feet would be a gang of ducks, eating the cracked corn they'd brought with them. Sometimes the corn would fall onto the tops of their shoes, and the ducks would come right up and eat it! It looked like fun, so I started bringing my own bag of corn. I'd sit on one of the many park benches, and the ducks would gather around my feet. They were mostly wild mallards, with three notable exceptions: two big white "Aflac" ducks, and a jumbo-sized mallard. After doing a little research, though, I learned that she wasn't a mallard after all, but a Domestic duck breed called Rouen. Since neither the Rouen or the white Pekins can fly, the only way those three got to the pond was by being dumped.

There was a natural increase, during this time, as Missy Miss Rouen got herself a mallard boyfriend and laid a bunch of eggs - eleven, to be exact. Because there are so many predators in the area, though, only three of those ducklings survived to adulthood. Today, you know them as Pretty Lady, Big Boy, and Pretty Boy. Eventually, Pretty Lady had a number of ducklings of her own before I started removing the eggs from all the Domestic girls' nests in an effort to keep the population in check.

There was also an increase because stupid people kept dumping their unwanted Easter ducks. Why in the world anyone would buy an animal knowing that they aren't going to keep it for a lifetime is beyond me, but that's what happens. I know because I had a conversation once with a couple who had dumped two Rouen girls after their grandchildren had tired of their Easter surprise. The couple had named one of the ducks Ethel. To this day, I have no idea who's who because the two ducks look alike. To keep things simple at feeds, I just refer to both of them as "Ethel-Ethel!"

A few summers ago, I had some tense words with the female half of that stupid couple because I wouldn't let the Ethels add to the population problem by letting them keep their eggs. The woman got so annoyed that she called Animal Control - little knowing that Officer Jeff and I work together to keep the population down! If I could rat the couple out here in my blog, I would, but alas, I never learned their names.

I will say this, though: last summer, I found the decapitated remains of a Domestic drake lying in the grass. It was a horrible sight. So, stupid duck-dumping couple, know this - 1) the minute you dumped the Ethels, you gave up any claim to them whatsoever; if I choose to remove the eggs from their nests, or even take those ducks home with me, I can do that because they're no longer yours. And 2) what happened to that poor headless duck can just as easily happen to the Ethels; that's the danger you put them in when you decided to dump them.

Over time, some Domestics died, others were dumped, and still others were very sneaky about their nest sites and I never found the eggs! Seven years later, there are roughly sixteen Domestic ducks living on McKinnon's Pond. I haven't named all sixteen because I can't actually recognize them all. Last summer, Freckle Duck had three Domestic drakes following her around, and they all had cream-colored tummies. To my untrained eye, they look exactly alike. The only way I can tell Big Boy apart from all the other large drakes is because he's such a huge chunk of duck that he stands out like a sore thumb.

You might think that Pretty Boy is the only black duck on the pond. For a time he was, but not anymore. Ducky, who has white rings around his eyes that make him look rather studious, was dumped several years ago, while Baby Fuzz (o.k., so they're not always the most creative names!) was one of those ducklings that Pretty Lady snuck onto the pond when I wasn't looking. The three black ducks are easy for me to tell apart because their markings are so distinctive. That, and one of them only has one wing!

Rounding out the line-up are Pretty Boy's girlfriend, the appropriately-named Girlfriend Duck; Peepers the Pekin - another duckling that Pretty Lady snuck in behind my back; Puddleduck, a Pekin who was dumped last summer; and the two Pekins I dubbed, "Fellows!" Back when I was first feeding the original three Domestics, I would greet them all as one by calling, "Fellows!" The name stuck, and to this day, I still address those two guys as such.

You're probably wondering what all the fuss is about, and why I devote so much of my time, energy, and money to what would seem to be boring animals. But that's just the thing - they're not at all boring! I learned that back in the early days, when, as I approached the pond on my walks, the ducks would catch sight of me. They'd start quacking to each other, something along the lines of, "Hey! The corn lady is here!" Then they'd all race toward me at once - up to thirty, forty ducks (mostly wild mallards) stampeding in my direction, all quacking madly, and every one of them glad to see me. That gets addictive very quickly, I can tell you!

At some point in the proceedings, I bought a point-and-shoot camera, and got the inspirational idea of sitting on the ground among them. I now had a ducks-eye view of the world, and, since I wasn't towering over them anymore, they became much more comfortable with me.

It's been that way for seven years now: I'll get out of the car, pick a spot for the feed, pour out a large measure of cracked corn mixed with duck pellets, then sit cross-legged on the ground in front of them. The ducks never stay in one place for too long, so they'll eat some food, then wander around a bit, then eat more food, then go down to water's edge for a drink. Most of the ducks get within a few inches of me at least once during a feed. I try very hard to observe the rules: no loud noises, no sudden moves. Most of them don't want to be touched, either.

Even so, I'll make a point of running my fingers through the tail feathers of some of them. I do this regularly with Pretty Boy and the Ethels. I want them to get used to my touch and not fear it, because as we've already seen with my favorite duck, sooner or later someone's going to have to go to the vet! Fortunately, the ducks have been lucky, over the years, and had very few mishaps.

Most of the problems and injuries have to do with fishing line and hooks, which careless people leave lying around all over the place. These days, I carry a bag of specially-chosen gear in my trunk, all of it designed to remove fish hooks, or cut fishing line off of duck legs. In a perfect world, I'd never even need to think about a bag of tools in my trunk. Regretably, it's a huge concern, and I've seen the damage fishing line can do: it once wound so tightly around a wild mallard's leg that it eventually amputated that leg. Because the duck was wild, I never got near enough to help him. It took two whole weeks before that leg rotted sufficiently to fall off.

I'm going to end on that downer note, folks, because it was humans who left the fishing crap lying around, and humans who can make a difference with the animals, if they choose. In the first place, please don't bring home any animal that you're not prepared to take care of for the rest of its' natural life. In the second place,
even if you don't have any pets of your own, you can still help make the world a better place through kindness to all critters. If you don't have the money to donate to a worthy critter cause, maybe you could donate some of your time, or give a piece of artwork to a charity fund-raiser. You could even donate your unwanted clothes or electronics!

If nothing else, every one of us can certainly ramp up our awareness of how small we're making their habitat, and that what's left of it doesn't need to be riddled with cigarette butts, empty pop cans, or used-up fishing line. Thank you all for stopping by. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Kelly's Christmas Cats

Hi folks!

Happy Holidays to you! I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas/Hanukkah/non-denominational time with lots of friends, family, good cheer and critters!

You'll probably be surprised to hear me say that I don't love all my cats equally. That would be impossible. It's more accurate to say that I love them all uniquely and individually. Each cat has a different temperment, different needs and wants, and a different personality. Because Spanky and Junebug are a little needier than the others, come Christmastime, I'll whisper in Spanky's ear, "You're my best present every year, 'Panky!" A little while later, I'll tell Junebug, "You're my favorite Christmas kitty!" The other cats seem to understand that those two need extra help, and no one seems to hold a grudge about it because the truth is, they all know that they're going to be spoiled eventually!

The cats have no idea what the holiday fuss is all about. Stockings, carols, and Christmas cards mean nothing to them. I do hang a stocking for them, a red felt thing with a mouse embroidered on it that I found in a store years ago. I usually have to Zip-loc the things that smell good, otherwise the cats will help themselves well before the appointed day. On Christmas Day, I'll sit down on the floor with them, use my excited tone of voice and say, "Christmas, cats!" Then I'll pull their gifts out of the stocking one by one.

This year, there was a new feathery thing attached to a stick. It was an immediate hit with Junebug and Spanky, who both pounced on it gleefully. Buddy just observed for a bit, while Gracie leapt back in horror every time I waved the feather in her direction. I suppose that while she was on the streets, movement meant danger, so I didn't push the issue.

There were two new toy mice to add to the collection of other toy mice that they rarely play with. You know the kind: a small mouse-shaped thing covered in rabbit hair, with a leathery tail at one end. For some reason, Buddy always chews those tails off and eats them. And he works pretty quickly, too: those mice weren't out of the stocking for more than ten minutes before I noticed their tails were gone!

The cats also got a package of snack treats. I don't recall the brand, but they're cheap and crunchy and crab flavored. Muffin, in particular, has taken a keen interest in these treats. Old Muff, who generally spends her days doing very little, will suddenly spring to life if she gets a whiff of crab or hears the package crinkle. Then she'll come running over to me with a speed I didn't know she possessed. It's nice to see she's still got some life in her after all these years!

So we spent about an hour chewing and leaping and sniffing and batting. Everyone joined in the fun, and after watching the other cats have at it, Gracie eventually mustered up the courage to give the feathery thing a few rabbit kicks! It was good bonding fun, where every cat got to sample the new goodies and enjoy some playtime with me.

Realistically, every pet owner (including me) should set aside some playtime with the critters every day. I understand that busy schedules often get in the way, and to be honest, I don't believe that all my cats want to play every single day: Muffin's too old; Buddy has his own agenda; Spanky prefers snuggling to playing; and Gracie's a little afraid of play that involves humans. Out of the five, Junebug is the only one who will aproach me with toy mice in her mouth, asking me to play. And while Junebug's only three years old, I've noticed that even she doesn't ask me to play that often anymore.

It seems more important to my cats that I am consistent. That I acknowledge Muffin when she maiows. That I stop working at the computer for a few minutes and let Spanky have a snuggle with me on the desk. That instead of shooing Gracie away while I'm trying to type, I scoop her onto my lap, where she'll purr happily until I get up. That I drop everything and respond to all of Junebug's squeaks. That I know when Buddy's had enough petting and wants to me to go away. Different cats, different personalities. While the cats don't need Christmas, they do need to be able to rely on me.

All my cats get presents every Christmas, but Santa gave me something a little different this year: my very own elf! A few weeks ago, I got an email out of the blue from a woman named Liz who had read about Pretty Boy and I in the Toledo Free Press. She liked what I was doing for the ducks at McKinnon's Pond and offered to take on the task of feeding them at weekends. So not only are the ducks getting a healthy meal when I'm not there, but I've got a set of eyes and ears at the pond, now, too. If there's an emergency, I'll learn about it that much sooner. Santa really took care of me this year - what I asked for was a bag of money and a date with George Clooney. What I got was the one thing I really needed: some help with the ducks. Thank you, Santa! And, thank you, Liz!

That's all for now, folks. I hope you all remembered your critters in some small way this holiday season - maybe with a new rawhide bone, or fancy collar, or just some extra crab-flavored snacks. But what your animals really want for Christmas - and all year around - is your love and attention. The great thing about those is that neither one will show up on your credit card bill in January! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Critter Trust

Hi Folks!

Thanks for joining me today!

I've been thinking a lot lately about critter trust. I started thinking about it last week when I was out feeding the ducks. As you know, Pretty Boy Duck spent a week in my bathroom healing from a serious eyelid injury. For that reason alone, it would make perfect sense if he spent the rest of his life studiously avoiding any more contact with me. At the very least, you'd think he'd be wary enough to keep a distance at the feeds, but he doesn't. More than once recently, I've watched as Pretty Boy shouldered his way through the throng of ducks until he was standing right in the middle of the pile of corn. Once there, he'd turn his back to me and start eating - even though he knew that I was well within grabbing range!

Having given the matter some thought, I don't think it's a question of Pretty Boy not being worried that I'll grab him again. I think it's more likely that he's learned that nothing really bad happens when I do grab him. There's a distinction between those two things, and an element of trust involved in knowing that ultimately, this Kelly person isn't going to hurt me, even if she does keep me in her bathroom for a while.

I don't take critter trust lightly. You have to pass a lot of tests and jump through a lot of hoops before some animals will honor you with their trust. My friend - and "Fowl Weather" author - Bob Tarte seems to use much the same approach as I do with the new critters that come his way: he tells me that he generally gives them a wide berth, allowing them the time they need to adjust to their new surroundings, and the new humans in their lives. Bob understands that you can't force yourself into an animal's life, that you have to do things at their pace, instead of your own. Anything else simply creates an environment of distrust.

While all this business about trust was percolating on the back burner of my brain, I went out to The Healing Barn on Saturday to do my usual horse poop scooping. I got to talking with Nancy, the owner, about the Belgian horses she used to have. She still has one of them, Old Molly, whose picture you can see on my website. If you look at that picture, you'll see how impossibly thin Old Molly is, and you'll think that she's been woefully mistreated. Well, she has been, just not by Nancy.

You see, there are people in the world who think of animals as nothing more than unfeeling chattel that they can do whatever they want with. And Old Molly's former owner was one of those people. He saw no need to buy proper feed for the Belgians because hey - there's all that free grass out in the pasture! This fellow also didn't see any need to have the horses wormed, even though, I'm told, their stomachs were bloated with worms. Nancy went on to tell me about some sheep that this same man owned, whose wool coats were so thick from lack of shearing that if they fell over, the poor creatures couldn't even right themselves again!

As Nancy told me these awful stories, I stood there picturing Old Molly standing in a field, not knowing that there were other people out there who could treat her much more lovingly and respectfully. It occurred to me then that even when animals don't know that they depend on us, they still do depend on us nonetheless. There's a certain implied trust, there, too: domesticated animals can't feed and water themselves. So, most of the time, they reach the conclusion that you're going to reliably do that for them. People like Bob and I attend faithfully to our critters' needs - no matter what the weather, or our state of health. But people like Old Molly's former owner clearly don't feel an obligation to provide even the basics.

It will interest you to know that Nancy ended up with the Belgians - Mr. and Mrs. Belgian, as I called them - because someone (rightfully) ratted that useless man out to the local Humane Society. In one of the unusual instances where the right thing actually happens, the man was relieved of the burden of caring for animals that he didn't care for anyway, and Nancy was called in to take temporary custody of Mr. and Mrs. Belgian.

Like so many other jerks in the world, the man took exception to being told what to do with his animals. He hired a lawyer and then turned around and sued the Humane Society for impugning his "sterling" reputation. Meanwhile, his lawyer appeared to have his own ax to grind against the judge in the cruelty case. Ultimately - and I'm told the case dragged on for over two years - the judge, in essence, told the creep and his lawyer to grow up and shut up, and that was the end of that. Nancy has maintained custody to this day. Mr. Belgian died a few years ago (his heart gave out due to old age), while Old Molly, who frequently appears to be on death's door, seems to keep going in spite of the past.

Old Molly has certainly earned the right to be suspicious of human beings, considering all she's been through, but after all this time with patient, gentle Nancy, it's clear that the old Belgian doesn't particularly want to hold a grudge. She understands now that she's going to be fed good food, that she's going to be well-cared-for (this time last year, I sprung for a new winter blanket for her), and that she's going to be safe. Those are big lessons to learn at any age, but Old Molly's managed it. Why? Perhaps because, deep down, she prefers trusting humans over not trusting them. Who can say?

As I sit in my chair watching t.v. at night, Junebug will wander in and, more often than not, lie down on her back. She's always liked lying flat on her back, her four paws splayed casually about. She's more than happy to fall asleep in that position. Some of my other cats will lie that way, too, but the minute I get near them, they will invariably roll over; they're just not sure what the situation calls for, so they always choose to play it safe. Not Junebug. She'll just turn her head for a better look at what I'm doing. If I reach down to pet her, that's o.k. - there's no reason for her to move when she's comfortable where she is.

Out of all my cats, Junebug is the only one whose kittenhood I'm familiar with. I don't know how Dr. Green's vet techs acquired the huge orange and white momcat and her kittens, but the family had already taken up residence in one of the hospital kennels by the time I heard about them. The staff - who go nutty over a critter at the drop of a hat, spent considerable time fussing over mom and kitties, giving them plenty of love and getting them used to being handled. "Socializing," it's called, and they did a wonderful job because when I took Junebug home, her trust in humans was already firmly in place. It was simply a matter of me reinforcing that trust by playing fun mouse games with her, by responding to her needs in a timely manner, and by being consistently not-scary.

Critter trust is valuable to me. I work hard every day to give all the animals a reason to trust me. I'll stand there getting soaked in the pouring rain, feeding the ducks and chattering my usual commentary - for no other reason than that I know umbrellas scare them. I'll dry off, and the rain isn't going to kill me. And believe it or not, duck trust is worth the risk of a bad hair day to me! I'll appologize to the cats if I've stepped on one of their tails - and the fact that they turn around, come back and let me pet them afterward tells me that they understand that I didn't mean to hurt them; they get that it was an accident. The fact that they're able to make that distinction means they understand a whole lot more than we generally give them credit for.

So while Pretty Boy surely didn't enjoy his time in my bathroom, I think that some part of him understood that I wasn't acting from a place of malice, just as Old Molly seems to understand that this new home, with its' new people, can be relied upon to be consistent in their care of her. By the same token, based on all of her experiences with humans in general, and me in particular, Junebug has clearly concluded that I'm a pretty good pal to have around: I play fun mouse games, I'm generous with the snack treats, and I'm always happy to see her. And seeing those trusting eyes looking at me - whether they belong to cats, or ducks, or horses - make all the hoop-jumping and test-passing worthwhile. I'm well and truly honored that they all seem to think that I'm trustworthy.

That's all for now, folks. But I want to leave you with this thought: at least once in our lives, we've all been in a position to see someone treating their animals badly. Whether it was outright cruelty, or hard-to-put-your-finger-on neglect, we knew in our gut that something wasn't right. But more often than not, we put blinders on because - well, what are we supposed to do? Rat out our friends, family, or neighbors? In a word, YES. That is exactly what you must do. You can do it anonymously, but you MUST do the right thing by the animal. You must be the voice for that voiceless, helpless creature. After all, how would you like to be in that animal's place? You may well risk losing a friend in the process, but from your moral high ground, ask yourself this question: do you really want to be friends with someone who treats animals with so little regard?

Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!