Sunday, April 19, 2009

Library in the sky is a lookout post for animals

These burrowing owls in Florida are protected by laws that don't allow people to disturb their habitats, but other wildlife isn't so lucky.

The animal people that enchant me most are those whose love and protection goes beyond the interests of their own personal pets. They are the ones who see beauty and worth in all kinds of animals eking out an existence.

Yesterday I had occasion to catch up by phone with a friend from the past. Marj Jamieson was the head librarian at the Winnipeg Free Press when I was a young cub reporter there for a few years in the mid-1990s. Hanging out with Marj in the library was my favorite escape if I was having a rocky day.

Marj and I hadn't kept in touch since I'd left town, but the conversation soon picked up right where we'd left off -- about animals. She's a dedicated animal lover always looking out for creatures in trouble. Marj is 78 now and retired from the paper, but when she worked there, she kept her own lookout post for animals in the area. The building had been constructed in a new business park that was developing quickly, pushing wildlife from their homes in the process. Using binoculars, Marj would survey the surrounding industrial properties from her perch at the Free Press library's third-floor picture window.

If she witnessed a burrow being destroyed by men with shovels or heavy equipment, she'd be on the phone immediately to the offending business requesting that they halt the activity immediately. She'd inform them that those holes and tunnels belonged to wildlife.

One time when she called, the person who answered was startled as it became obvious Marj was watching the exterminators as she spoke.

"Where are you?" the employee demanded.

"I'm up here," Marj said, adding this explanation: "I'm God. And yes, I am a woman."

Jackrabbits, gophers, and foxes all benefitted from Marj's eagle eye.

She helped domesticated animals, too. At the newspaper's previous downtown location, she set up a trapping mission and nabbed six cats across the street from the paper on land that was hosting the Air Canada offices. The airline staff were caring and cooperative, she recalls. The cats convalesced and met with potential adopters in her backyard summerhouse.

"Any cat who was brave enough and smart enough to live at the corner of Portage and Carlton deserved a new life. We did find homes for all of them," Marj said.

Here's me with Panda, the dog who kept me company through childhood.

Dog fur spiffs up birds' cribs

My childhood dog was an Old English Sheepdog, and Marj Jamieson had one of the same breed named Humphrey when I worked at the paper. It wasn't long before we were sharing stories about our dogs again, this time about brushing their long, fine coats.

Grooming for these dogs must be done every couple of days. I recalled our dog Panda lying sacked out on her side as my mother brushed her while soap operas played on the television set in the background. One of the chores assigned to my brother and I was checking Panda daily for woodticks. We each took half a dog.

Marj also had brushing memories. She talked about grooming Humphrey on the deck. She'd sweep his hair from the brush periodically, setting the fur bundles down. She'd watch with glee as the Orioles swooped in and the squirrels raced over, snatching it to feather their nests.

"It was a race between the squirrels and the birds. What nests they must have built," Marj remembered fondly.

Like Marj, I'm always impressed when animals make use of materials discarded as trash by human beings. Their ingenuity is a natural survival skill that exemplifies the brilliance of nature. Animals find what they need in their natural environment without requiring fancy linens and fluffy pillows to satisfy them.

Once in a while, when the birds and squirrels were still waiting for more than Humphrey could deliver, Marj couldn't resist giving them a little extra insulation, and would set out a box of Kleenex.

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