Sunday, June 28, 2009

Joy to the world

Joy presents me with a Recovery Buddy appropriately named Stormy.

When I'm interviewing animal rescuers, I've stopped asking if something horrible happened to them in the past.

Instead, I ask what happened.

Was it abuse? Neglect? Violence at the hands of human beings?

That's because I've noticed that people who risk their livelihoods, their health, even their own lives to save animals have usually been victims of trauma themselves, often from experiences that stretch back to their tender childhoods.

Whether it's because they identify passionately with the underdogs, or they have lost hope in human beings, the rescuers I've encountered turn to animals instead of people to find safe, rewarding, unconditional love.

My kind friend Joy is a dedicated animal lover. We first met when we landed on the scene of disaster in New Orleans in September 2005 following Hurricane Katrina's history-making devastation. We had both self-deployed to rescue the emaciated, injured animals left behind to die in a flooded wasteland devoid of people to care for them.

Like many of us, Joy has found a dangerous way to cope with her inner demons. Her soothing behavior of choice is self-injury. She began the behavior as a teenager.

Self-injurers might cut, burn, hit or scratch themselves. It's a disorder that mystifies many laypeople, who can't fathom inflicting pain on their bodies to bring comfort to their minds. But I understand Joy's actions. The physical pain she inflicts causes her to forget her mind's pain for a moment, and the distraction brings relief. It might also be an attempt to ease feelings of emptiness or numbness. The pain allows sufferers to feel alive because they are feeling something.

Joy -- who works as a veterinary technician -- recently spent a 30-day stint at a recovery clinic in Texas. That's where she discovered that a small item gave her big comfort.

Upon arrival at the clinic, she was handed a Recovery Buddy to help her through the difficult moments. Joy recalls clutching her yarn-covered soft toy as she weathered the lonely times away from friends and family.

Before I made the trip to visit Joy near her home, she asked me what my favorite colors were. I said black and blue. That's appropriate because I'm notorious for being a clumsy oaf.

And so, over a leisurely lunch, she presented me with Stormy, a black-and-blue Recovery Buddy she had knitted herself.

I was touched. The Buddies are knitted by survivors like Joy, who donate them to clinics around the country. The toys provide comfort to people battling a variety of mental health disorders.

The doll's appearance was apt on more than one level. Stormy sums up my circumstances right now. And don't forget -- Joy and I crossed paths in the aftermath of the most devastating storm in American history.

As I write this, Joy is madly knitting up a batch of 50 Recovery Buddies that are destined for an eating disorder clinic in Florida. She plans to enclose encouraging notes with words to comfort the recipients. Like them, she's been there.

Joy's found a way to make herself feel better. Instead of hurting herself, she's helping others.

And she's figuring out that this storm, too, will pass.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Catch and release

He was almost a cat's mouseful, but now he's free to roam the forest.

Recently I was telling you about all the mouse casualties I’ve been encountering around the house.

And then, when I least expect it, there comes an unexpected save.

I wandered into the bathroom a couple of mornings ago and immediately noticed something was amiss.

Little Carreen -- who spends her nights safely tucked into this room -- was sitting on the countertop watching me as I investigated. The fleecy brown blanket that feathers her wicker bed was in disarray, and bunched into itself.

I started to straighten out the blanket, surmising that she had decided the bed was a convenient litter box.

But when I pulled out the blanket to fluff it up, I was surprised to find a tiny field mouse bundled and trembling inside.

This pipsqueak was too small to have engineered a self-bundle. There was only one possible explanation.

Little C had her fun with the mouse, then put him safely away like a plaything in a toy box. She showed species-defying compassion.

I took him outside and sat him on the grass. He didn’t run away. I petted him a little and offered some soothing words, but he just sat there shaking, too terrified to leave my side. Finally after an hour I left him alone. When I came back 15 minutes later, he was gone.

I left Mr. Mouse a dollop of peanut butter. A snack for the road.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kids summon words to save animals

Buddy the Beagle gives Alex Bezugly a sniff.

Right on schedule, Buddy pads into a guest appearance that’s going to save his life. But the Beagle-Basset mix is completely oblivious to the significance of the meeting. Instead, he concentrates on sniffing his way around the room, as hound dogs tend to do.

The lack of focus on his future won’t hurt Buddy’s chances. He’s free to be himself. His sniffing habit will be presented to potential adopters as an endearing quality.

Meet Buddy’s promoters: Mrs. Davis’ fifth grade class.

Buddy is more fortunate than most shelter animals. He’s got 26 Kendall Elementary School kids on his side, and they are dedicated to finding him a responsible new home. These mini marketers are special for many reasons, not the least of which is their age. At 10, these children have a more sophisticated knowledge of animal welfare issues than most adults I encounter.

While Buddy does his hound dog thing, the kids look him over and pepper Whatcom Humane Society community outreach director Laura Clark with questions about the low-lying canine. Laura tells the children that Buddy was given away twice in two weeks before he landed at her shelter. She describes him as friendly and mellow, and a bit overweight.

“Would he be a good dog for a jogger?” Laura asks the kids.

“Maybe a jogger, but not a runner,” pipes up one boy.

After the kids get the scoop on Buddy, they mobilize into action. Some spend time getting to know the dog better. The rest break into small groups and head for the circular bank of classroom computers. They settle in immediately, and start hammering out Buddy’s tale of woe on the keyboards in a variety of formats -- news stories, advertisements, fictional accounts, songs and poems, even a drawing or two.

The format of their pieces and the partners they choose to work with is up to them. More rules aren’t required, because rules aren’t the motivation for these kids to work hard and turn in first-rate projects.

It’s the animals’ lives that are at stake.

“This has made writing important,” says Alex Bezugly, 10.

Each week, Laura brings a kid-friendly shelter animal to Judy Davis’ class for about 45 minutes -- dogs, cats, even a chicken. It’s the saddest cases that resonate most sharply.

“They would see the abandoned animals, and they seemed to really relate,” Laura says. “They would really identify with that animal, and have empathy for the hard-luck stories.”

Kids who used to hand in two or three sentences just a few months ago are writing pages now. That’s because they know their work will immediately be posted on Whatcom Humane Society’s website along with the animal’s photos. And that drives them. They are compelled to put the animal’s best paw forward in the quest to find them a responsible new home.

“These animals are amazing,” says Ridge Buecking, 10. “It’s cool to write about them and have people read our work.”

Recent test scores from this class reflect the fervor with which the kids are attacking their mission. Writing and reading marks have dramatically improved from where they sat in October when the humane education program began. Even math marks are better when essay answers are required for the questions.

It’s the brainchild of two animal lovers -- Laura Clark from Whatcom Humane Society, and Judy Davis, a veteran schoolteacher with 25 years in education. Besides being friends who share a love of animals, they are also neighbors who live on acreage not far from the elementary school.

I asked Laura how the program, which is just finishing its first year, took flight.

“Judy and I cooked it up while we were hiking in the woods,” Laura says. “We solve the world’s problems when we’re hiking.”

It took two years for them to turn their glimmer of an idea into a real live program.

“It’s hard to find a principal who’s willing to take a chance on it,” Judy says.

She’s found a supporter in principal Charles Burleigh, who views it as a rich experience for the kids, particularly given the school’s demographics. Kendall Elementary is in the foothills of the Mount Baker National Forest, which is a relatively remote location, “so it’s important to have experiences that come to school as opposed to kids walking out the door and having experiences in a city,” Burleigh says.

The region also has the cheapest housing in Whatcom County, which tends to draw poor families. Three-quarters of the kids who attend Kendall receive free or subsidized lunches, and all get free breakfast.

“They’ll never forget this,” Burleigh says. “This helps them have a more well-rounded education.”

Besides boning up on their writing abilities, the children also develop social and communication skills, teamwork, empathy and compassion.

The power of compassion is evident. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response from everyone the program touches. It’s already the most talked-about item at parent-teacher conferences, Judy says, and it’s nearly always the first thing the parents mention when they sit down with her -- that it’s their child’s favorite time of the week.

And it’s pretty sweet for the animals, too.

Just ask Buddy.

The Kendall kids get to know Buddy. He's since been adopted. Their hard work helped find him a home.

Buddy puts his nose into smelling his surroundings.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Love means size doesn't matter

Zoey nuzzles her little pal Lexi.

Lexi the Chihuahua snuck into her home the way many animals do -- she started out as a foster dog. Then Zoey and her human mom fell in love with this bitty dog, and couldn't bear to say goodbye. She's become firmly entrenched as part of the family.

In dog lifestyle vernacular, Lexi's hit the jackpot. Her guardian Beth just opened a doggie daycare called Go Dog LA. Life will be endless socializing and constant fraternizing for this wee pup.

Special thanks for this photo goes out to Kim Rodgers, Bark Pet Photography proprietor and shutterbug extraordinaire. Kim's also the animal rescuer who brought me the story of Sugar the pit bull (Can you adopt this torture survivor? May 18, 2009).

You can expect to hear more about Kim's animal-saving efforts next time I visit Los Angeles.

By the way, Sugar's still looking for a home. Time is running out for this sweet girl. If you know anybody who is interested, please get in touch.

Sugar offers a paw to her foster mom Jane Simon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hoo-hoo knew?

An owl checks me out from his perch.

Sometimes I power down all the modern sounds inside the house and just listen to nature playing outside. Without stereos, TVs, telephones, microwaves, and vacuum cleaners, I can hear a whole other world happening out there.

My favorite birds to listen to are the owls, who don’t just stop at a simple “hoo-hoo”. It always sounds to me like they’re chattering out a conversation.

Tonight the little birds were trilling so enthusiastically that it sounded like an aviary out there, and I swear I heard a husband and wife owl nagging at each other.

Back and forth they went for 20 minutes. One would call out, then there would be a short pause, and I would hear the other one respond from the opposite end of the forest. I guess commitment can be a challenge, even in the bird world.

To me, it sounded like their conversation went something like this:

“Get back here and clean out the nest. It’s a mess in here!”

“Why don’t you do it, I’ve been out hunting for food all day.”

“And what do you think I’ve been doing? Do you think the owlets are raising themselves? You come and pick up after yourself!”

I don’t think the husband gave a hoot.

Friday, June 12, 2009

These two almost became the deer-ly departed

The young deer I encountered have run back from the road and are contemplating their next move.

I was headed into a pristine snow-capped Pacific Northwest mountain range today when I came upon an accident waiting to happen.

I slammed on the brakes when I noticed two young deer shoving their noses through barbed wire looking very much like they wanted to jump the fence.

But it wasn't the barbed wire fence that foreshadowed danger.

It was the highway they were trying to cross.

Mount Baker Highway, a winding two-lane road leading out of Bellingham, is known for its two contradictory characteristics: beautiful scenery, and gruesome accidents.

The last time I traveled this route, it was barricaded because of a terrible accident. I took the wrong detour and came up a back road, only to find myself smack in the middle of a horrifying car crash scene. It was like something out of the evening news. Glass, twisted metal and blood were what I saw as I soaked up the sights of what was left from the three-car high-speed demolition derby.

This time, I thought it was going to be the deer who ended up as casualties of this twisted mountain highway

I stopped my car in the middle of the road and hit the flashers. I stepped out and motioned cars, trucks and semi-trailers to stop dead. To my surprise, they waited patiently.

When I get into an animal rescue situation, I try to anticipate how the animals will react. I stood a distance away, waiting to see what the deer would do next.

I didn't want to frighten them into the road. Nor did I want to drive them back if they preferred to cross. If they needed to get over, I wanted to be there to stop the cars that could potentially hit them.

The two deer eventually decided against crossing and ran away, taking flight through the field like two nimble Springboks. When I finally drove off, I still felt uneasy. I didn't know whether these deer had it in their minds that they needed to cross the road, or if it was just a whim.

I'll never know. But I do know this: they didn't die on my watch today.

And that will have to be enough.

This deer was the one most determined to cross. I motioned traffic to pass slowly, and they did. He had trouble jumping the barbed wire fence.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Newsroom staff scoops orphan kitten from danger

Inky -- who now goes by Maddy -- has come a long way since her days spent dodging traffic as a stray kitten. Maddy photos courtesy of John White.

There was something fateful about how the mother cat died.

It was a rainy morning and she was trying to cross a street with her kitten when when she noticed the little one wasn't following. So she turned back.

That's when the vehicle struck and killed her instantly, according to horrified witnesses. And that's when the fatefulness started.

There were witnesses.

She died on Mountain Avenue, a bizarre name for a roadway on a Canadian Prairie landscape that's as flat as a floor. It's located in the north end of Winnipeg in an area called Inkster park that's home to snowshoe hares, gophers and feral cats. The ‘ink" in Inkster is fitting, because the industrial park is also home to the sprawling headquarters for the province's legendary broadsheet newspaper the Winnipeg Free Press.

I have some history with the Free Press, which is known for being a gutsy paper covering a gritty news town. Winnipeg is my hometown. I was hired for my first newsroom job there in the late 1980s. Besides the excitement of writing daily news, there's something else I remember about my time at the Free Press. The newsroom is populated with avid animal lovers. In fact, I've written about their animal-saving antics before on this blog. (Three generations of animal rescuers, April 29, 2009 and Library in the sky is a lookout post for animals, April 19, 2009).

So when I heard about this rescue, I wasn't surprised. Nor was I surprised to hear Margaret McMillan's name associated with it. Margaret, who's now the executive assistant to another Marg -- editor Margo Goodhand -- used to drive me home from work when I was a teenaged cub reporter. At the time, we both lived far outside the city. We'd wile away the driving time having long chats about cats.

Naturally, word of the accident traveled quickly among the newshounds. Margaret, Margo and many other Free Press staffers couldn't bear to stand by while one tragedy turned into two. A man had covered the dead cat's body with a piece of plastic. But at least one kitten was still out there somewhere. Scared and alone.

Suddenly the search for the little kitten became the biggest news of the day, at least inside the newsroom. Small search parties of people began abandoning their posts to look for the palm-sized survivor who had been spotted fleeing the scene, and perhaps a whole litter who hadn't.

After an hour and a half, Margaret and editorial writer Catherine Mitchell finally found the black and white kitten where she had buried herself. Under a pile of leaves at the base of a pine tree not far from the accident.

"Her eyes were so goopy that I doubt she could see out of them," Margaret told me.

Margaret and Catherine brought the frightened kitten back to the newsroom and settled her into a 9 x 11 inch box in a small side office where she was expected to cuddle in with one of Margaret's sweaters. They turned off the lights to create a relaxing environment.

But the kitten had other ideas about where she'd be convalescing from her tragic ordeal.

"She sat on Margaret's lap for a few hours - she just bawled if you tried to put her down - until we finally took her to a nearby vet to get checked out," said Margo Goodhand. "She loved Margaret, and Margaret was really good with her. She was exhausted, and hungry, and Margaret put some food on her finger and got her to lick it off - her first solid food, it looked like."

Initially, Free Press staff called the sole survivor Inky. It was a good name considering her roots in Inkster Park, the occupations of her rescuers, and her appearance. Her white fur coat is marked with black splotches.

Margo Goodhand recalled how Inky appeared in another way.

"So tiny and so cute and so sad."

The rescuers quickly decided they had to get Inky assessed by a vet. To get there, they had to pass the mother's body tucked close to the curb.

"We drove past that poor sodden display twice when we went to the vet that day," Margo said.

The veterinary bill came to more than $200, and was initially covered by Margaret and Margo. But soon money started flowing in from anonymous donors.

"Every time I left my office I found more money on my desk," Margo said. "All day it kept coming,"

The posse that formed the animal search party didn't give up, though. Staff continued searching for survivors until 7 p.m.

"We walked up and down -- there were groups of people walking around looking for them," Margaret said. "They would have been crying."

Any more time on the streets and Inky likely would have grown up to be a feral cat, untamed for human touch and companionship. In a busy urban area like Inkster Park, feral cats typically run into myriad dangers and have short life spans.

But at six weeks old, Inky probably wouldn't have survived alone.

And that's where Fate stepped in. What saved Inky's little life was the attention drawn to her mother giving her own life. Because in that moment, Inky became the news of the newsroom.

Free Press city editor Paul Samyn summed up how the hardened newshounds felt about the helpless kitten.

She was "black and white and loved all over."

Resident cat tamer Margaret McMillan had Inky cuddled in as snug as a bug all day.

Inky's got a new name, a new home, and her own blog

Who can resist nurturing a tiny orphaned creature? Not the Free Press staff, that's for sure. They lined up for a chance to adopt this little survivor.

"The whole office was coming around all day to see her," editor Margo Goodhand said. "Everybody wanted to take her home, but because of the [eye] infection, and the possibility she might have some other problem we didn't know about, I thought I'd take her home to give her meds until she was all better.

"So I took Inky home that night but got an email within a few hours from John White, our deputy editor online, who said he and his wife would really like to have her. And it seemed like the right thing to do, because we already have a cat and John and Rosanne didn't."

But Margo admits it wasn't easy to part with Inky, since renamed Maddy by her new family.

"We had this series of email exchanges. I said ‘Sure, I'll bring her in tomorrow.' And John said ‘Hey, it's OK, we're in the neighborhood' (they live MILES away). And I said, ‘Could you give me an hour more with her?' And John replied, ‘Whenever you're ready, let me know.' And after about 20 minutes I felt stupid so I emailed and they were on our doorstep in about 5 minutes!"

John is taking his new parenting responsibilities seriously. He promptly went out and purchased a video camera to keep co-workers apprised of her milestones and activities with a cuter-than-cute blog he set up for Maddy. To view photos and watch videos of this charmer, go to Maddy's Second Chance.

Maddy puts on a show for her new project, a blog created in her honor. Quite the fancy kitty!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Seeking shelter from cynicism

Claire and Emily offer bedding and food treats to go with animals leaving their shelter.

I've always been more interested in rescuing animals than raising children. Until recently, I didn't even understand the appeal of child rearing.

At 40, I'm finally starting to get it.

Lately I've been talking to kids about saving animals, and it's a completely different experience than speaking to adults on the same subject. Kids stare in amazement and hang on to every word, thrilled at the prospect of what can be accomplished. They ask how they can make a difference and save lives themselves. And then they do something I'm always begging adults to do, and -- I admit it -- not always so successfully at that.

They take action. And they do it without being prodded, guilt-tripped, shamed, cajoled, sweet-talked, bribed or threatened.

Last night I witnessed the beauty of kid power in action again. I took a break and headed north to Vancouver to visit some old friends I haven't seen in ages. One of the couples has an adorable pair of little girls, and shortly after I arrived, the kids took an interest in my SUV. The grey Honda Element has an eye-catching red magnet stuck on the back that reads Animal Rescue Transport Vehicle.

Claire, who is almost four, and Emily, nearly 7, were excited and wanted to peek inside.

I gave the go-ahead and opened all the doors wide. The girls promptly scrambled in with their bare feet and started crawling around fascinated, checking out all the tools of the trade I keep stashed in there.

Here's what they found. A foldout cardboard carrier and a small box for housing stray or injured animals. Towels and blankets. Bottled water. Cans of cat food. Several leashes in a variety of styles. Long Kevlar gloves to protect hands and arms against bites. A protective mask with a carbon filter in case I happen upon an ammonia-laden hoarding house. First aid kit. A T-shirt identifying me as an animal rescuer. Yellow sticks of chalk to write license plate numbers on my dashboard when I spot dogs flying around loose in the back of pickup trucks.

As Claire and Emily gazed at the contents of the car with their big round curious eyes, I told them about some of the animals who have been transported in my renegade rescue vehicle. Dogs, cats, even a bird and a mouse in the last few days alone, I explained.

Unbeknownst to me, the girls hadn't just been listening idly. I later found out that they had been soaking up the information like little sea sponges.

The adults chatted after the meal, and the kids slipped away from the table to play. Soon they returned, pressing a round plastic disc into each of our hands. The tokens represented money, they informed us. Each one could be redeemed for an animal.

Then they led us to the project they had been working on while we relaxed.

To my sheer amazement, three-year-old Claire and six-year-old Emily had set up a mock animal shelter. Using some blankets, they positioned the living room furniture and tented a perfect mini-model for a temporary disaster facility. I crawled under the tent and found an array of plush and plastic toys laid out in a horseshoe arrangement. Each animal was nestled into a size-appropriate makeshift kennel, such as a mixing bowl or a Tupperware.

When I go to animal rescue disaster training, we stage exercises that resemble Claire and Emily's project. We set up mock animal shelters, just on a larger scale. These kids did it without being told. They saw the car, imagined the animals that would be arriving in it, and figured they would need a place to put them.

It was logistics genius in its purest form.

Emily and Claire were waiting for us under the tent with the animals they had up for adoption. They questioned each adult about what kind of pets we were looking for -- including our particular desires and habits -- and determined which animals were best suited to us.

And then the girls really impressed me.

"Before you go, pick up a blanket and some food for your animal," Emily said, pointing to an area beside the tent. The girls had raided their toy collection and lined up miniature mismatched supplies to go with the animals to their new homes. We were instructed to choose a tiny scrap of bedding and a plastic food item, which were obviously bits and pieces gathered from other toy sets.

I could have cried at the simple, shining beauty of it all.

The animals need the optimism, energy and hope that the next generation of kids like Emily and Claire bring to the mission.

And, for that matter, so do I.

This isn't the last you'll be hearing of Claire and Emily. I'll be back to play Animal Rescue with them again, and this time it might not be just fun and games. When we finished going over all the items in my car, Emily made it clear that the kids didn't want to stop at make-believe.

"Can we go out and start rescuing animals now?"

The girls set up a place to house rescued animals.

Emily and Claire supervise the animal adoption area of their makeshift shelter.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

This Penny brought me good luck

Penny says goodbye to a place she called home.

We all know what it's like to say goodbye to a dear friend who's moving away. Your happiness for their exciting new opportunity is edged with sadness as the magnitude of what you are losing begins to dawn. You promise to write, to call, to keep in touch. Sometimes you do. More often you don't.

And when the person leaving you has been a life force for your life's mission, the feeling of loss goes beyond the parameters of the average friendship.

I first met Penny Cistaro in 2001, shortly after moving here. I had loaded up a rented RV full of cats and moved from southern California to northern Washington State, where Penny worked as the executive director for the shelter in town.

In any new place I land -- and I've lived in many -- it's not long before I get to know the local animal shelter for one reason or another. This time, it was two feral cats I had found living underneath a trailer outside an engineering firm in Bellingham. I had trapped the cats and called the shelter to see if they would help fix them. Penny met me outside the gates of the Whatcom Humane Society (WHS) to collect the cats and check them in for surgery before the shelter opened.

That was the beginning of a friendship that saw a long parade of animals pass from my hands to Penny's. Cats I found sitting in the middle of the road, not street-smart enough to know any better. Unwanted pit bulls dumped outside my country home. Stray dogs I rescued running on the freeway. Cats who survived the floods of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Even a bullfrog who had been run over in an industrial park.

Though many of the animals didn't get their happily-ever-after endings, something always gave me comfort when an animal's story ended less than brightly. It was Penny's arrow-straight judgment and natural competence. Once the animals I had rescued were nestled safely in her care, I could drive away from the shelter knowing that I could relax. That they would suffer no longer, and be treated with compassion and respect.

The more I saw of this little shelter that could and its fearless leader, the more it inched its way into my heart. Penny, always the master delegator, saw something in me too, and promptly enlisted me as the shelter's ghostwriter. Since then, I have written extensively about WHS -- both the animals that ended up there, and the staff and volunteers who nurtured them along the way.

I've been doing animal rescue for 20 years, and Penny taught me more about the field than any other individual ever has. In particular, she opened my eyes wide to the struggles faced by shelter workers forced to euthanize because of the epic overpopulation crisis. And she taught me not to beat myself up when I lose one. You can't save them all, but you can save them one at a time.

This past weekend was Penny's last one here. Just before she left, I brought her some packing boxes. But in the end, we couldn't even bear to say the word goodbye. By Sunday, she was simply gone.

Monday morning was Memorial Day, and I was back in the shelter again, this time with an injured field mouse. The place felt different without her being there, although I was in good hands with the fantastic crew that Penny has trained and left behind to carry on with the life-saving work. Her spirit remains.

And while our local community has lost a gem, the animal rescue community hasn't. With nearly 35 years of shelter work behind her and a career that spans coast-to-coast, Penny's not retiring from the business just yet. This time, I'm staying up north, while Penny goes south to California. She started work last week in Sacramento, where she'll be running the city's Animal Care Services department.

Congratulations on your new opportunity, Penny. But just so you know, I'm not ready to call this goodbye. I'll be in Sacramento to visit you soon. And if history is any indication, I won't be coming empty-handed.

This is the look Penny -- or PC as I prefer to call her -- gave me when I told her she couldn't leave because I have abandonment issues.

Bellingham dentist and WHS board member Faith Bult comforts a teary-eyed Penny at the goodbye party thrown in her honor at Boundary Bay Brewery, a local hotspot.

Northshore Veterinary Hospital owner Kim Barron, also a former board member, came to the event with her kids in tow to say goodbye to Penny. Kim is also my vet, by the way.

When your mom's a vet, healthy choices come instinctively.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

This little bird is flying with the angels

Animal care manager Krista Unser examines a sparrow who had a head-on collision.

I chastise my cats for extinguishing the lives of tiny creatures. But yesterday, I was the one who caused a casualty.

I had just turned my car out of the driveway and started down the road when two birds flew straight into my path, dipping and swooping in an airborne ballet. Suddenly one bird changed direction and turned, diving straight into the center my windshield. I slammed on the brakes, but couldn't stop in time.

The bird bounced off the glass and dropped to the road. My car passed over her as I skidded to a stop. In my rear-view mirror, I could see the crumpled, lifeless brown lump lying there in the middle of the pavement.

Throwing the car into park, I ran out to retrieve the bird. She was still alive. I picked her up gently. Her body fit right into the cup of my hand. Her terrified eyes looked straight into mine. I cradled her and carried her back to the car, cooing softly.

I contemplated keeping her on my lap so I could tend to her, then quickly disregarded the fleeting thought. What if she was simply stunned because of shock? Chaos would ensue if she snapped out of it en route and decided to test her wings.

Instead, I placed her in a towel in a box kept in the back of the vehicle specifically for this purpose, and we headed to the shelter.

Krista Unser was on duty when we got to Whatcom Humane Society. She opened the box and took out the bird, but it was over for this little one. She was dead on arrival. Her neck had been broken.

Now that she was free from pain and stress, we could indulge our human curiosity and examine the bird more closely. We both looked her over, and even reached out to stroke her feathers a little. The chance to touch wildlife that usually won't let people come this close was too much for us to resist.

Krista knew a little bit about this bird, because the same species hangs out in her garden. She told me she was an English sparrow, and speculated that mating season might have been the true cause of her demise. The other bird who chased her into danger was probably a male hoping to mate with her, proving that love may be blind, but its force is capable of dropping you in mid-flight.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Kids and animals get rights trampled at rodeos

A frightened child clings to the neck of an equally scared sheep for the amusement of spectators at a rodeo. Photo courtesy of Wendell Phillips.

Usually I write about animal abuse. But today's story packs a double whammy.

It's about a popular rodeo sideshow that doesn't just harm animals. Children suffer too.

I first heard about this dangerous rite of passage known as "mutton busting" while watching a recorded episode of the Today Show at the end of March. At the time, I was so shocked by the event that I rewound the news story several times to watch the video footage over and over.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And even worse, I was stunned by the way the story was being presented. The jovial tone of the reporter who did the voice-over. And the hosts' reactions when the story ended and the spotlight was thrown back to them.

Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira grinned to each other and the audience, seemingly marveling at the cuteness of it all. Then Vieira made a joke.

She laughed that "the kids weren't half b-a-a-a-d" out there riding the sheep.

I wonder if she would find it so funny if she knew what rodeos are really about. Not just for the animals forced to participate in the abusive events in general, but also for the pint-sized participants coerced into entering this contest in particular.

Children from four to six years old are encouraged, goaded, sometimes even downright shamed by their parents into participating. Before and during their woolly ride on a sheep, fear is evident on the kids' faces. And they aren't the only ones who are distressed. The sheep who are forced to be ridden are clearly frightened. They writhe and buck violently in an attempt to throw the tiny trespassers off.

Injuries sustained by children who enter the mutton busting contests are varied and significant. Fractures of the arms and legs. Head, neck and spinal cord injuries. Children might be dragged by the animal if a foot gets caught in a stirrup. They can be thrown to the ground and trampled once they land.

Still, it's virtually a picnic for the kids who go to the rodeo compared to what happens to the animals. After they have been killed, or maimed past their usefulness, rodeo animals are sold for meat. That is where the veterinarians who work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have witnessed the extent of the cruelty inflicted on them.

The animals who come from rodeos are characterized by "broken ribs, punctured lungs, hematomas, broken legs and severed tracheas," says Dr. Robert Fetzner, Director of Slaughter Operations for Food Safety and Inspection Service for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Veterinarian C.G. Haber, a USDA career inspector with 30 years on the job, has similar horror stories to tell.

"The rodeo folks send their animals to the packing houses where...I have seen cattle so extensively bruised that the only areas in which the skin was attached was the head, neck, legs and belly," says Dr. Haber. "I have seen animals with six to eight ribs broken from the spine and at times puncturing the lungs. I have seen as much as two and three gallons of free blood accumulated under the detached skin."

Still not convinced that riding sheep isn't a child-friendly activity?

Then check out some videos of kids mutton busting on the website for Shark, an anti-rodeo animal welfare group.

Here's the dirt on rodeos

The true extent of animal suffering that is endured at rodeos is generally hidden from public view. But animal advocates working undercover have managed to get video and photographs. If you care to research further, this evidence can be widely viewed on the Internet. Be forewarned -- the images you will encounter are disturbing.

Calf roping: Three- and four-month old calves are put in a chute, tortured with electric shock prods, and "clotheslined" around the neck as they race out of the gate in panic at breakneck speeds. If repeatedly shocking them in holding chutes doesn't get them moving, their tails might be wrenched over steel bars. Thinking they have escaped the torture, they charge into the ring area, where the cowboy's rigorous neck-choke hoists them into the air before they hit hard ground. As they wheeze and tremble, the contestant might body-slam them again.

Steer tipping: Handlers rope the steers' horns, and when the galloping horse turns, the steer's head and neck are jerked 180 degrees in a quick movement by the handler, causing the animal to be violently tripped, rolled and dragged for 30 feet. The stress to the neck is enormous. Sometimes the horns are fractured. The object of the game is to take the steer down violently enough to stun it. Eventually their broken bodies are useless for this event, and they are sold to slaughterhouses.

Bull riding: The bulls are shocked repeatedly with cattle prods to start them bucking helplessly in the chute. Shock prod use is common, as 5,000 volts of electrified pain is shot into an animal's flesh for entertainment purposes. The bucking straps and spurs can cause the bull to buck beyond his capability. The legs or back can be broken. Flank straps are secured around the animal's abdomen and groin, causing internal bleeding and sores, to increase the bucking motion as the animal desperately tries to flee its predicament.

Bronc riding (saddle and bareback): This activity claims the lives of many horses. The horses crash blindly in panic in the chutes, or run into posts in the holding fence. Bucking horses must be spurred over the shoulders on each jump or buck for the rider to qualify. The spurs cause blunt trauma to the animal's shoulders. That doesn't heal before the activity starts all over again.

Practice pens: Life is no kinder for the calves sold to the practice pens for this event. Calf roping, a timed competition, requires much practice, and these animals are roped over and over until they are injured or killed.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Oh what a tangled web we weave...

Sunday was cleaning day at my house. I live with nine destructive cats. Even though I rescued them, they have no mercy on me, their savior. They disregard my pride of home ownership, treating this place as their own personal playground.

It's never a light cleaning job. Tiny paw prints are etched on the walls they've scaled. Black marks are smudged on every corner from cheek-rubbing to mark territory. Bundles of cat fur roll along like tumbleweeds, so big they could form a new cat. Shredded bits of cardboard from scratching posts are scattered like wedding confetti.

And in case you're reading this over a meal, I won't get into the bodily fluids, but keep in mind we're in the thick of hairball season.

I scrubbed my floors and all-white walls clean, with one exception. I never have the heart to dislodge a spider from his nest and suck up all that hard work into a vacuum cleaner hose. If I had woven such an intricate shred of netting, I'd feel crushed watching it go down with the dust bunnies.

Living out here in the forest, there's an abundance of creatures of all sizes -- mice, rabbits, possums, coyotes, deer. Birds abound. Little ones like robins and woodpeckers, and big birds -- eagles, owls and herons. Oodles of insects keep me entertained. Slithering snails, crickets chirping all night, and spiders spinning the most beautiful webs. I find spiders in my car in the mornings, their dewy webs stretched from the dashboard to the windshield.

But it's not a bed of roses.

The unforgiving food chain means the pecking order kicks in. Not everyone survives. Cats and small dogs left to roam outdoors unsupervised are quickly snatched by coyotes. And a few days ago, I pried an injured mouse from my cat Sam's mouth. That's the fourth mouse casualty, and the only one who was still alive when I encountered the scene. Sam playing with the prey while Madison looked on, a gleeful spectator watching from her perch on the bed in the basement. I rushed the mouse to the shelter, where I watched her get humanely euthanized.

When I find insects who have survived the snap of my cats' jaws, I can't help giving them a chance to make a go of it.

Here's who made it through another day in the forest: