Friday, April 19, 2013

A Terrible Tragedy

Hi Folks. Thanks for stopping by.

I'm going to skip my usual preamble and jump right into the thing I want to write about.

It's with a very heavy heart that I must report the following: for reasons known only to themselves, a group of teenage boys vandalized a school bus and school windows in Charlotte, N.C. and while they were at it, they took two-by-fours and bricks and beat several Canada geese who were nesting on school property. From what I gleaned from news reports, a pair of geese defended their nest literally to death, with the gander dying from his injuries on site and his mate suffering extensive injuries as she tried to save the eggs. Local wildlife rescue agency Carolina Waterfowl Rescue was called in.

According to the Waterfowl Rescue's Facebook page, the goose was badly injured. She had a ruptured air sac, head trauma, and a large hematoma on her head. She also had several leg fractures and a crushed food. Her toes were dislocated. The Rescue took possession of the injured goose and arranged for surgery on her leg. While the surgery itself went well, the goose - now named "Wilma" - did not wake up from the anesthesia. Two boys have been charged with cruelty to animals.

Normally, I avoid animal cruelty stories like the plague. They're too horrific, impossible to make sense of, and I hate the feeling of helplessness that engulfs me when I hear the details. It's simply too much for my overloaded emotional circuits to deal with. This time, however, as I was perusing my facebook home page, I accidentally read more of the story than I ordinarily would have. Once I knew a few bits and pieces, I took the plunge and checked out Carolina Waterfowl's facebook page to read the whole story, and now you know what I know.

The point of this blog entry isn't to ruin your day with an awful story of animal cruelty, though. The point of this entry is the answerless questions that keep running through my mind:

Why on earth would anyone think beating an animal to death is fun?

What kind of parents would raise a child that behaves with such a complete lack of decency or compassion?

I believe the second question is the most vexing, and here's why: are there any parents out there who are actually willing to look at their child's behavior objectively and conclude that something is, in fact, wrong with their offspring? Did Charles Manson's parents ever once stop to think that it was their fault that their son turned out to be a mass-murdering sociopath? Did you know that a good many serial killers started off torturing animals as teenagers? The FBI has recognized this connection since the 1970s, when its analysis of the lives of serial killers suggested that most had killed or tortured animals as children.*

In my experiences taking care of the abandoned flightless ducks at Whoville's city pond - who are at the mercy of cruel children themselves - I've come to the conclusion that a good many parents school their kids in the importance of being kind and gentle with the family kitty or puppy. But it's clear that the education stops there and falls far short of the larger issue: kindness and gentleness toward all species.

If I had any answers that would end the scourge of animal cruelty, I would certainly share them with the world. The fact is, I lie awake most nights praying to whoever is up there to please help humans be nicer to the animals around them. For the most part, it doesn't seem as if the Gods are listening. I also pray for the souls of those poor creatures, though I've thus far had no evidence to prove that my prayers are working. It would seem that a more practical solution is needed, and in that regard, the solution is obvious: parents.

While I've frequently heard parents get prickly when others want to lay blame for children's behavior at their feet, in the case of the goose attack, the kids involved were juveniles who still live at home. That, in my mind, means that the parents involved were failing miserably in their duty as educators and must be held accountable. Children learn such cruelty somewhere, and it certainly isn't learned at church! Or school.

I realize that there are no simple answers at hand. Children do, indeed, learn cruelty at home - generally at the hands of abusive parents. And while, having been abused myself, I have enormous compassion for children who are abused, it does not give them free reign to take it out on anyone - or anything - else. We as a society must make that clear.

The sickening attack on the Charlotte geese could well be a talking point for any teacher who thinks animal cruelty is a relevant topic for class discussion. I invite all teachers reading this to consider having that very discussion with your class. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation, and its moral progress, can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

Today, tomorrow, next week....let's all do something, however small, to try to eradicate animal cruelty. There's simply no room for it in a compassionate society.

*SPCALA website 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Life Lessons Courtesy of Bit the Horse

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I decided to spend the winter teaching lease horse Bit some ground manners. This was because when someone tries to climb into the saddle, Bit foils them by refusing to stand still. He'll walk this way and that, forward and back, in his attempts to keep you from getting on his back. This is not only annoying, but it's dangerous, too, and while I've never actually taught a horse anything before, I figured ground manners were worth a shot.

I wish I could say that I've been 100% successful with this endeavor, but Bit has a strong personality, so we tend to butt heads. Any number of times, during our training sessions, he's turned his head toward me, taken the loose end of the lead rope in his mouth, and repeatedly flailed his head about. It's his way of saying, "Enough already! I know how to do this!" To which I always reply, "You might know how to do it, but you don't know how to do it well!" Clearly, Bit and I disagree on how much more training he needs to have!

I tried working with Bit on a regular basis, but sometimes, the winter weather was just too much for my delicate constitution. Even inside the arena, the penetrating cold would numb my fingers to the point where I couldn't properly fasten the tack. So there were times when we went a number of days between teaching sessions, and Bit always liked to pretend that he'd forgotten what I taught him.

Repeatedly, I'd walk him up to the mounting block, bring him to a halt, and try to climb onto the saddle - only to watch him back away at the last moment. Around in a circle we'd walk, and I'd line him up with the mounting block again - and again - each time attempting a safe mount, and each time, watching him back away from the block. Ugh! Fortunately, toward the end of our sessions, he'd do things correctly a couple of times and I'd reward him with an apple slice. Suffice to say the learning has been slow-going.

It didn't help that ground work was all we could do. If it wasn't too cold to attempt a walk outside, then the ground was too muddy to walk in, all of which confounded my efforts to work with him outside the fence. As you may recall, I've also been trying to make Bit into a trail-riding horse. We spent a lot of quality time together last fall walking the track outside the pasture fence. Bit was - and still is - a huge fraidy cat about anything unfamiliar, so our walks consisted mainly of Bit eating grass, Bit startling at something imaginary, Bit prancing around in nervous circles, and me standing calmly by, reassuring him in a soothing tone of voice that all was well. By the time winter hit and we had to stop walking outside, Bit had calmed down considerably, and I had begun to feel somewhat optimistic about using him as a trail horse. I should have known that my optimism was misplaced!

When the first hint of spring weather arrived recently, and the muddy track had finally dried up, I decided to break up the monotony and take Bit out for a walk around the track. Unfortunately, he startled at so many things - real or imagined, that it was like taking him out for the first time all over again. Even so, he did pretty good for a fraidy cat, and we managed to make it all the way to the back end of the property. I made sure to let him stop and graze on what little grass there was at every opportunity because grazing always seems to calm him down. It was while he grazed that I decided to walk him a little farther than usual.

The trail-riding track runs along the back edge of several properties. On one side is a long row of evergreen shrubs that border the properties, and on the other side are large tracts of farm fields. The trail runs between all this, and Bit did very well walking the length of it. After giving him a chance to look and see and smell, I turned and headed back toward the barn. It was as we rounded the back corner of barn-owner Wendy's property that the thing I always feared finally happened: Bit spooked and shot off at a gallop.

All the previous times that Bit had startled at something, he never ran any farther than the lead rope would stretch. But this time was different, and in the split second after he took off, several thoughts crossed my mind in quick succession:

"If I don't let go of the lead rope, I could lose some fingers!"

"I'll never be able to catch him!"

"He's not going to come if I call!"

"God, I hope he doesn't run out into the road!"

"Call Ron!"

I let go of the lead rope almost immediately. If I'd hung onto it, it could have tightened around my hand and literally ripped my fingers off. Helplessly, I watched Bit tear across the field, drawing a momentary blank as to what to do next. Then it occurred to me: call Ron.

The only reason I had my phone with me was because Wendy had suggested it when I started leasing Bit. The idea made sense: co-owner Ron was almost always somewhere on the property, and he was universally recognized as the alpha horse. Unfortunately, my phone decided not to cooperate when I tried dialing Ron's number. I paused in despair, wondering what the hell to do now, and thinking about how, if something bad happened to Bit, it would be all my fault. In the midst of all that thought, I almost didn't notice that Bit had changed his trajectory and was now running directly toward the mud lot where his herd was. When he reached the mud lot fence, he stopped running. That was unexpected!

Fortunately for all concerned, I had the presence of mind to remember the advice I'd gotten from both Wendy and her daughter Connie - that in order to teach Bit to be calm, I must exude calm. Fighting my desire to run up the track to retrieve Bit, I walked instead. While every inch of my being wanted to race to where he was so that I could regain control, I knew that doing so would only confirm to him that there was, indeed, something to be afraid of, and that he would probably take off running again.

So I strolled at our usual walking pace, forcing myself to remain cool and collected. And, because prey animals have very good hearing, I began to talk to him, too, giving my usual running commentary about what a nice day it was to be a horse, and what a big, goofy meatball he was. To my everlasting surprise, it worked! When I was half-way up the track, Bit turned his head, saw me coming, and trotted a few paces in my direction. Then he stopped and stood stock still, facing me and waiting for me to come and get him. It was clear in that moment that he was thinking, "Everything's o.k. now! Kelly's here!"

It was one of those incredible moments that I don't get to see very often, the kind of moment in which Bit shows me that we have, indeed, been building a relationship, and that I've earned his trust. In all those teaching sessions where he'd get impatient and grab the lead rope, it sure didn't seem as though we were accomplishing much. And yet there he was, trotting eagerly toward me and then stopping to wait for me to catch up. Once I did, I took possession of the lead rope, gave him a couple of snacks, and heaped praise on him for being such a smart boy. Then, because I wanted things to end on a normal note, rather than a panicked one, I let him graze a little, and then took him in the barn and groomed him.

In my experiences with Bit, whether we're working on a new skill, or just hanging out, I'm learning that John Lennon's words - life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans - are true. While I'm focused on the tasks at hand, and assuming that Bit is, too, something intangible is happening: we're getting to know each other in subtle ways, ways that apparently reassure him that I'm safe, and that I'll keep him safe. That I'm reliable and that he can rely on me. Such important things, and such a shame that we never notice them unless we're tasked with a situation that brings them to the fore. I suspect that the same is true of human relationships, too.

So while the thing I feared most did indeed happen, I've come away from it feeling very reassured about my knowledge as a horsewoman (disaster did not befall us after all) and about my relationship with Bit (who, contrary to his usual behavior, has actually learned a few things). There's nothing better than realizing that you know a little more than you thought you did!

That's all for now, folks. Thanks again for stopping by! May you all have small moments of big revelations with your favorite animals! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. The thing that sent Bit galloping through the field? A white plastic grocery bag wafting on the breeze. Who knew something so inconsequential could be so terrifying?!