Woof woof roar

Dog lionI thought you might be unhappy with me if you knew I knew about a zoo in China that was trying to pass off a big, fluffy dog as a lion and was keeping this little bit of ha-ha to myself. So, here you go:

It seems the People’s Park of Luohe in the central province of Henan has been defrauding visitors by populating the zoo with impostor creatures: a white fox and a mongrel for leopards, a rat plus some sea cucumbers for snakes. And a Tibetan Mastiff for an “African lion.”

Try to imagine mom’s surprise when she and her impressionable boy heard the ferocious king of the jungle…bark. “I had my young son with me,” she told a reporter, “so I tried to play along and told him it was a special kind of lion. But then the dog barked and he knew straight  away what it was and that I’d lied to him. How can they tell such dreadful tales and expect to get away with it?”

They could because they did, until the woof happened, that is. Turns out it costs a lot to maintain a lion in captivity, what with the 25 pounds of food it needs a day (make that the meat of a horse with her tail) and the rare veterinarian who actually knows how to care for a big cat without being swallowed whole. Why, you could put your head and neck inside the mouth of a Tibetan Mastiff, and afterwards she’d lick your hand. Also, for peanuts a day you could throw down a cup or two of Purina and be done with it.

Then, there are other cases elsewhere in China of dogs being painted black and white so they look like pandas. I don’t make these things up.


Dogged by karma

dogsI have a complicated history with dogs. When I was around ten, my father, a devout dog lover who knew I would have given anything to have one, took me on an outing during one of our weekends together and bought me a beagle from what is now known as a puppy mill but from what seemed to me then as a farm in the country. We cared for her for a few days in his city apartment until it was time for me to return to my mother’s house in the suburbs and to face what it would mean to have a dog there.

My mother, who was extremely scared of animals small and large, was extremely scared of this puppy, Pinky, and it didn’t take long before the whole plan to make me happy with a pet unraveled and before I was left to care for her entirely on my own without the support of either parent or of my older brother. I still feel great pain about leaving her outdoors on a lead for hours at a time or about locking her away in the basement when I was at school, and I have never been able to forgive myself for yelling at her and for hitting her when she didn’t behave the way I wanted her to behave. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that my mother told me she had simply opened the front door one day and had let Pinky run off, though the official story until then had been that she had given the dog to someone who had acres and acres of farm.

Then, when my daughter was around ten and would herself have given anything to have a dog, Lucy, a wild and glorious German shepherd, came to us and stayed for about seven years. She was not an easy girl, and it took a very long time for her to decide that she wanted to live with us; once she appeared to have made that decision, however, she became a most loyal and loving dog, though I was not always the best human to her. As with Pinky, I have never been able to forgive myself for yelling at her when she didn’t behave the way I wanted her to behave.

I have spent the past several years thinking about getting another dog and had even become addicted to watching the Dog Whisperer on TV in the hope, I see now, that I might finally learn how not to be irritated by a dog being a dog and how to care for it in the best and most loving way.

Now, my daughter, who recently moved back to the city where I live, and I are talking about getting another dog and about somehow sharing the responsibility of caring for it. This makes me so happy. And afraid. It’s just that I’ve gotten more cranky as I’ve gotten older, not less, and more intolerant about the world not conforming to my idea of how it should be. Maybe an old dog can teach me some new tricks.


Wired to devolve

The gestation period for an elephant is 22 months, apparently so it can get its brain right. I’ve been wondering about what we could do if we had 13 more months to grow some smarts: Reverse global warming, obliterate all disease, eradicate famine, put an end to war? Not likely on this last one.

I have seen too many nature shows, have known one too many baboons, and have been made to bear my own darker impulses all too often to believe that we humans are capable of transcending our baser selves–at least not without a lifetime of intentional struggle in that direction.

Everywhere we are in conflict with our brethren: in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Mali, Mexico, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. And, where we are not engaged in an active fight we are spoiling for one. Alas, we are hardwired to beat our chests and scratch our underarms. Afterall, we have babies to make and mouths to feed, and there’s just so much viable sperm and fresh kill to go around.


Back on my high horse

I have always been crazy about horses. I spent the better part of my tenth year whinnying, and around the same time nearly met my maker when a horse I was riding tried to roll over and crush me because it could sense how much of a soft touch I was. When I was 13, I went to a horseback riding camp for two months and nearly crippled my horse with an oozing saddle sore because I couldn’t bear to tighten the cinch.

Through animals, I understood something early on about the fragility of life. My father once caught a gray field mouse in a trap and I lunged to touch it. “Get away!” he shouted, and I cried. I think it was my mother who gave me two baby turtles, one painted blue and the other yellow. I thought it was fantastic, fantastical, until someone told me they would suffocate. I tried to wipe off the paint but couldn’t, and I cried. After, there slowly dawned in me the idea that cruelty abounded, and then it became more than an idea. I learned about bull goring, and dog fighting, and fox hunting, and more.

A few days ago I heard on the radio a story about how the bloated rich in China race pigeons and how birds that are not fast enough are gassed or drowned or decapitated. How is it, I wonder, that we come to lose our humanity or perhaps never find it in the first place.  


Criminal minds

On Thursday I was caught in gridlock for nearly an hour and had moved only an angstrom when out of nowhere came a Porsche barreling down the shoulder lane. I was livid, as I can be with anyone who tries to get one over on the rest of us.

Years ago, I saw a Jane Goodall film in which one of her famous chimpanzees stole bananas from a fruit bin meant for all of the chimps. He had snuck ahead of the group so he could get more than his fair share, and he had so overfilled his arms with fruit that, as he ran away, he had to keep stopping to pick up the ones that dropped. The audience laughed a knowing laugh.

I have never been able to tolerate extreme displays of piggishness, not even, or least of all, my own. You’ve seen it: the person who is last of four at a four-way stop sign and who is the first to drive on through, the person at the back of a crowded elevator who pushes her way to the front so she can be first one off, the person in the cafe you frequent who grabs a Sunday New York Times off the stand and sits down with it just after you’ve paid five bucks for yours, the person who takes plate after plate of food from the all-you-can-eat salad bar, the person at the market who sees you are headed for the checkout and who races ahead so she can get there first, the person who lets you hold a store door open for him without so much as a thank you, the person who talks all the way through a movie and then tells you to go f*** yourself when finally you say shush.

There are unspeakable crimes like murder, torture, and rape, and then there are the very smallest of crimes against the souls of others, which don’t seem like crimes at all. The ones where we tailgate a car because the driver is going the speed limit, yell at a waiter who mixes up our order, walk past a homeless man and feel contempt because we think he has brought on his own troubles, shun the person who’s packing too many pounds for our taste, honk (or want to honk) at an old woman in a crosswalk because she is not going fast enough for us.



Anti-Darwinians notwithstanding, humans are enthralled by the goings-on of other species because we want to know who we once were, who we are now, and who we can become. We are made giddy by the discovery that we share 98.6% of our genes with chimpanzees and can imagine how, back in the day, it might have felt to swing through the branches, lick termites off twigs, and crack nuts with rocks. We can also see in nature the propensity all creatures have for violence and so are comforted both by the knowledge that we can’t help our darker impulses and by the hope that we can.

In his article I, Turbo, science and nature writer Eric Wagner captures this tension beautifully. Having spent six months in Argentina’s Punta Tomba region, Wagner and his wife, El, studied Magellanic penguins and observed firsthand their tendency towards savagery as well as their capacity for gentle good will.

Possessing what Wagner funnily calls a “Me” and “Not Me” take on existence, these jackass penguins, so named for their braying, were “breathtakingly indifferent to the welfare of their neighbors” and “had no qualms about using the desiccated remains of their dead offspring as nesting material”; yet, there was one, the irrepressible Turbo, whose joie de vivre and disarming sweetness belied the menacing underside of penguin culture. Where lesser penguins would brutalize the interlopers whenever they had the chance, Turbo would waddle out from the bushes to greet them whenever they passed by. Where the more fearful penguins would eschew all contact with the intruders, Turbo would nightly bill-rap on the couple’s trailer door so he could be let in.

In a PBS Nature special on the American bald eagle, we get to witness a display of transcendence that rivals Turbo’s, in which a young male takes a bride and treats her with such tenderness and kind regard that some of us might be tempted to trade in our partner for a raptor. At one point, when the two are preparing an intricate nest for their unborn, the female puts a stick here, some grass there, a leaf elsewhere while her partner looks on with a courtly indulgence only love can bring. As soon as she turns her back, though, he sets about to undo her handiwork and to rearrange it so it is more to his liking.

In another scene, he sits on a lone egg, a blizzard all but burying him and the nest in snow, while she goes off in search of food. She never returns—and never will return because she has died—but he waits nonetheless until cold, hunger, and perhaps heartbreak force him to abandon his eaglet and to fly off. The following spring he returns to the same nest and once more waits until the possibility of renewal arrives in the form of another graceful damsel.


No one told him

This morning, as I was shampooing my hair, a memory I didn’t know I had beaned me. Some 30 years ago, my then-husband built a small wood bird feeder and secured it right outside our kitchen window. The birds would come so close that you could reach out to touch them, but for the shut window. 

One dreary day, I was standing in front of  the window and washing the dishes when I noticed a neonic parakeet amidst the squawking chaos of gray and brown and black. As a child, I had had a love affair with these fragile tropical birds, so I was especially moved by this tableau and thought I should do something to save one that had so obviously lost his way. Without my help, I was certain he would not survive another day of thick fog coming in off the San Francisco Bay.

With as much stealth as I could summon, I opened the window slowly slowly slowly and tried to grab the budgie, but he and the rest of the birds beat it and flew to the roof of a dilapidated garage that stood at the end of our driveway, where they lit. I was sure he was a goner, and I was so sad. If only I had been sneakier, I thought.

Several months later, I was washing yet another sink of dirty dishes, and I just happened to glance over at the garage. There, on the roof, I saw a row of gray brown brown black gray brown green and yellow gray brown black brown gray and so on.


Of whales and men

Here’s the narrator of a PBS show about whales: “A female humpback announces her arrival, and she’s ready to mate. Her fin slaps can be heard a mile away, and almost immediately a gang of suitors is headed her way. She wants to choose the strongest mate, so she challenges them to the ultimate fitness contest. She sets off on a marathon swim with a pack of jostling males…. Under water the 40-ton males look deceptively relaxed, but the tension is building. These lustful rivals are already sizing each other up. Battle could break out at any minute. The stage is set for a real confrontation…. Then suddenly the mood changes. The female has vanished, perhaps having eloped with her chosen mate. Without the object of their chosen desire, the heat has gone out of the battle. Minutes after dueling in the high seas, the males caress each other, perhaps for consolation or to repair injured feelings.”

Here’s my version: Mary knew time was running out. Soon, her eggs would be old and her hopes of having a baby would be dashed. Jack, Joe, John, and Jeff all wanted to bed her, and she had been putting them off for years. To beat the clock, she knew she’d have to choose one, but which one should she pick? Jack was devilishly handsome but an idiot; Joe was smart as a whip but a wimp; John could run a mile in 3:43:13 but was also an idiot; and Jeff was gorgeous, brilliant, a great dancer, a regular volunteer at the local retirement home, and a pilot but had slept with every woman in town. There was only one thing for her to do: Put on her red dress and go to the local bar where the men hung out. (Luckily for her she was ovulating.) The minute she walked into the place, all four of them could smell her heavy perfume, and they began vying for her attention. Jack asked her to dance, and Joe cut in. John challenged her to a game of darts, and Jeff tried to pull her into the alley. Soon, a fight broke out among them, with fists flying and blood spraying. The bouncer threw the lot of them out the door. From their places on the curb, they saw Mary leave with Charlie. Her coat was trailing behind her and her dress was pulled down to her waist. “What a slut,” Joe said to Jeff. Soon they were on their feet and slapping each other on the back. “Sorry, Jack.” “Me, too, man.” “Sorry, John.” “Same here, man.”  


The end of innocence

I would likely die of heart failure if today I found chameleons in my bed, but there was a time when I couldn’t get enough of them. Granted they are lizardy, but when I was a child I was desperate to get to the bottom of their sorcery.

From time to time I would visit the “Pets and Fish” section of the local 5 & 10 and there would watch these Merlins work their magic. How was it that they could switch from brown to green on a whim or that they could be so wily underneath all that stillness?

It is true that I was curious about the physiology at play, but it is probably more true that I wanted to learn something about the nature of artifice. One thing I know for sure, though: Chameleons taught me that people are never as they seem.



Despite the fact that Twilight Zone scared me witless, I watched it faithfully when I was a child. Perhaps I was trying to inoculate myself against the terrors of life. It didn’t work.

One episode, entitled “Eye of the Beholder,” was especially frightening. The story revolves around a young woman who has just undergone plastic surgery  to correct an ugliness that keeps her withdrawn from the world. We wait anxiously for the bandages to be removed, and, when they are taken off, we see that the woman is quite beautiful. It turns out that it’s the doctors, all aliens, who prove to be monstrous looking. Deeming the surgery a failure,  they tell her she must go to another place (guess where) so she can be with her own kind.

After I read yesterday about the passing of Yoda, the “World’s Ugliest Dog,” I got so frothy that this story had made headline news. Isn’t it enough, I asked myself, that we have to live in a culture that torments women who don’t conform to prevailing standards of beauty? Do we have to torture our girl dogs, too?

When I sat down to give the world a piece of my mind, though, I took a close look at a photo of Yoda and recoiled in horror. She really WAS ugly, I thought. Alien ugly. I felt ashamed of my response because I love animals more than anything, except my daughter; yet, while it seems true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I am wondering now if there might be certain things in nature that make all of us draw back with the same primal fear. 

Take the lamprey whose mouth is ringed with teeth, whose tongue also has teeth on it, and who swims up inside the gills of fish to drain their blood.