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Rhino Rodeo

Sunday, January 30, 2011

We're at the rhino barn at The Wilds near Cumberland, Ohio.
Three-month old southern white rhino Anan wanted to show how sporty she is, how fast she accelerates.

Anan moves out at a smart trot. Rhino feet are so soft and springy they look like they're wearing bedroom slippers full of Flubber.

If the 40 degree weather bothered them, they didn't show it. They seemed to love the sun.

When I visited South Africa in August, it dropped into the 20's each night. Yes, it gets cold there! But their winter quarters at The Wilds are well-lit and very warm. 

I couldn't get enough of this little rhino child.

I did let myself think about what might happen if I got between a wild mother rhino and her child.

You wouldn't want to do that. Mother Zenzele, not to be outdone by her charming child, banked sharply and charged right at us, obviously enjoying the way we all leapt back as she swerved at the last minute. "This," one of the keepers said, "is why we keep them behind four-inch steel bars."

I marvel each time I visit The Wilds that here in southeast Ohio, not even an hour from my home, endangered animals are being wonderfully cared for, multiplying

acting as insurance for wild populations, reservoirs of precious genetic material

the most precious coin of conservation's realm. 

Baby White Rhino

Thursday, January 27, 2011


The kids come along. They play in the snow and suffer the cold, because they know there are huge rewards for good kids at The Wilds. 

Although there are no monkeys at The Wilds,  Phoebe is wearing her monkey hat just for the occasion. I love this picture. Sasquatch Takes Five.

Phoebe and Liam team up with an adorable little guy named Evan and off they go, doing what kids do on grassy hills.

 They build a little snowman, and my camera captures the moment it topples over. Oops! Pushed too hard on the last tooth.

So Liam and Evan build another one, and give him an oakleaf rooster comb.

We are here for the rhinos. We climb on a hand-painted school bus that reeks faintly of rhino and head down to the barns.

We are here especially to see Anan, a three-month old southern white rhino.  She's the fourth white rhino born at the facility. And even better, she is the daughter of Zenzele, who was also born at The Wilds six years earlier! She weighed about 100 pounds at birth, but she was gaining rapidly.

 This photo doesn't look like much, but as it was taken I was planting a kiss on Anan's velvety nose, mmm mmm mmm.

 Such a little peanut head. The Wilds has a wonderful record of rhino births--eleven to date--seven southern whites and four one-horned Asian rhinos. The animals have 160 acres to graze on, and enough individuals to form a viable social structure. 

We adjourned to the outside, where we got some more rhino lore from a keeper. 

 This photo of Zenzele rolling reminds me of something from Fantasia, with elephants in tutus. Such a lusciously rounded lady she is! Her nice pink udder looks like a bikini bottom.

 I love rhino 'tocks.

More Anan anon.

The Wilds in Winter

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Dawn on our road. The kids and I are headed out to The Wilds!

 Each January, we take part in the Ohio Ornithological Society's field trip to The Wilds, a 14 square mile reclaimed strip mine that is now billed as the World's Largest Conservation Facility. Sometimes we help guide the groups, and sometimes we just hang out. Usually it's a mix. Everybody helps everybody else find things. That's what makes it fun.

Birders' cars gathered in the parking lot on International Road, January 2011.

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

We hope it won't be freezing cold, but it usually is. There's nothing to stop the wind, and it's always about 20 degrees colder there than it is at home. But there are rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls, eagles, foxes, coyotes, and any number of birds we can't see at home. And there are other birdwatchers, friends of ours, and it's always fun to be out with them.

American bison grazing, The Wilds, January 2011

 And there are some rather awesome perks to this trip.

The Wilds' staff has spoiled us terribly. Last year, they let us into the southern white rhino's winter barn, and this year, they raised the bar by letting us into the Asian one-horned rhino barn and the giraffe barn as well as the white rhino barn. Oh, my. If you want to make Science Chimps very, very happy, just let them into animal barns where they can fondle the hoofed stock.

I got a lot of very cool photos last year, because it was a warm and balmy day, nudging into the upper 30's, with lovely sun. I kept meaning to post them, but spring rolled around and I got seduced by the moment. Sometimes I save the best stuff until it's almost spoiled.

We waited, listening to the rhino keeper talk about his charges. My inner Chimp was jumping up and down, hooting. I was about to see a rhino up close!

Bill of the Birds got his pats in.

I discovered very quickly where the southern white rhino's sweet spot is. It's the incredibly soft, warm fold between his massive abdomen and his hind leg. Why, that's Chet Baker's sweet spot, too. I was using dog knowhow on rhinos, which turns out to be a good strategy. I commenced to scratching in there and the huge animal leaned toward me, holding his leg out, in rhino nirvana.

Well, it was a commensal relationship because it made me happy, too. At one point the rhino fell almost over, he was leaning so hard and holding that near hind leg up. My hand got kind of gooshed between the rhino and the four-inch steel bar that holds the animals in. I was OK. I'm sure the rhino was very sorry.

Southern white rhinos are very, very sweet animals.

I sorry, Miss Thighscratcher Woman. I know I am fat and heavy and you are small. Is your hand OK?

Southern white rhinos are soulful and serene and their eyes are wise. In personality, from my limited experience, I would place them somewhere between a very nice horse and a dog. They're more into being petted than horses are, which moves them toward doglike.

I so wanted to climb into the pen with them, but even with a raging case of rhino fever I knew that would be a dumb thing to do.

Needless to say, Phoebe and Liam were enchanted by these enormous, puppylike beasts, especially when one sat down on his haunches. What a sight.

Just huge.

Tennessee Tables Crane Hunt!

Sunday, January 23, 2011


On Friday, January 21, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency voted to table the proposal to open season on sandhill cranes for two years. More than 100 people packed the Nashville hall to present hunting arguments both pro and con, but the con's carried the day, buoyed by the thousands of letters, emails, calls and comments received by TWRA since October. Remember my first post in October, when I told you TWRA Commissioner Michael Chase had received exactly one letter of dissent, from concerned Tennesseean Janet McKnight? You changed that.

photo by Vickie Henderson

The Tennesseean has an article about the meeting and the decision. The lack of good data about this eastern flyway crane population was central to the arguments against the hunt. In deciding against instituting a hunting season now, TWRA recognized that a hunt proposal perhaps partially based on one year's huge (and likely unrepeatable) apparent gain in crane numbers is premature. To recap, here are the crane counts for the past six years:

2006: 14,158
2007: 14,698
2008: 12,945
2009: 20,191
2010: 48,505

And this just in--the January 2011 count. Well, would you look at that: back down to an unprecendented low.

2011: 11,000

It's been cold and snowy in Tennessee this winter, and the low 2011 count likely means that many of the  cranes have pushed farther south. Midwinter counts can be misleading in both directions. A long-lived, slow-reproducing bird in which only 30% of nesting pairs manage to raise a single chick each year (or, to put it another, more sobering way, a species which raises an average of .33 chicks per pair per year) is not subject to sudden population explosions. It is, however, quite vulnerable to population crashes. We need to keep that in mind when we're putting it in the crosshairs.
photo by Vickie Henderson

Some biologists are now speculating that the freakishly high January 2010 count was the result of a weather event that froze all open water at Indiana's Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, sending the cranes that normally winter there packing farther south to Tennessee. As many as 30,000 sandhill cranes may gather at the Indiana refuge in a big winter. And guess what?

As many as 30,000 people may come to see them at J-P in a single season--200 people per day. Sounds like a nice ratio: A crane for every human. But not... a crane in every pot. A flying, calling, purring crane, winging high overhead or stepping gracefully through the corn stubble.

Cranes will be flying, calling and purring, safe from gunshots, for at least two more years in Tennessee. They'll be drawing thousands of visitors to Hiwassee Refuge to enjoy them--and eat, bunk in hotels, and shop at local businesses while they're at it.

If crane enthusiasts, spearheaded by the Tennessee Ornithological Society's Melinda Welton and Vickie Henderson, have their way, they'll be safe for much longer than that. Vickie has drawn up a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take another look at its Management Plan for the Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes. To take the provision for hunting seasons along the Eastern Flyway out of it, at least until more is known about this population's dynamics, movements, and reproductive viability.

Here's the petition site. Please, sign it.

 photo by Vickie Henderson

Tell the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that you don't want to see sandhill cranes gunned down in the Eastern Flyway.

photo by Vickie Henderson

Oh. And thank you for writing, calling, emailing, voting, signing. I think you know now that you've made a difference.

 Special thanks to Janet McKnight for first alerting this hermit to the proposal to hunt Tennessee's sandhill cranes.  Thanks to Gary Loucks , Melinda Welton, Vickie Henderson and Cyndi Lawrence Routledge for fighting the good fight on their own home turf. Never underestimate the power of uppity women (and men). We're going to need them--remember, this is just a reprieve in Tennessee. Kentucky's just proposed its own sandhill crane hunt and, not surprisingly, isn't accepting public comment. Well, that doesn't stop anyone from calling and writing their legislators, does it?  Here's one place to start.     

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
1 Sportsman's Lane
Frankfort, KY  40601 800-858-1549                

Elegy in a Country Graveyard

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Apologies to anyone who finds these cemetery posts a little shady and dark. I don't mean them to be. I'm always looking for ways to better appreciate the gift of life, and I find powerful motivation for living well in contemplating the too-short and often tragic lives of others. The route I run every day, weather permitting, leads me to a tiny Methodist cemetery, where a little white clapboard church once stood. I loved that church, loved the phoebes who nested in the foyer, loved its weathered whitewashed siding and its raccoon-soiled pews, and I hated to see it razed and burned down. That's what a township has to do when a building is beyond repair and kids are going there to drink and raise hell and in doing so probably fall through the rotting floor. All that's left of the church is a dip in the hilltop. The scorched tops of the cedars that stood closest to it tell of the fire that consumed its clapboard, its wooden pews, its probably bat-graced belfry. How the two trees lived through it I'll never know. I figured they'd die right away, but they haven't; they just keep right on going. I don't think they're growing any more, but they're alive, and that's something.

I think a lot about Osborn and Adaline Congleton, who lost their son Thomas at age 25, and their first daughter Ida at only six months. Ida B. was born the day after Phoebe, albeit 119 years earlier. Like me, Ida's mother carried her in the heat of summer. I know what that's like, but I can't imagine having to say goodbye to her the next January, when you've barely gotten the chance to know her.

What more defining events could Osborn and Adaline have experienced? How did they go on? Like the twin cedars, scarred by fire, they just did. 

Our Loved Ones Await Us

As Robert Frost, who had a terribly tragic life filled with loss, wrote, 

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."

There is nothing quite so clarifying as standing at the grave of a child who never got to grow up and have her own children, a child who never got the chance to delight her parents by becoming a person in her own right. To think of Liam and Phoebe, who but for advances in medicine, might already be done with their lives…well, it’s hard to go on feeling sorry for oneself when you stand by a little obelisk, toppled by frost heaves, and you turn it over, for it’s just light enough to move, and puzzle over the names and dates until it sinks in on you just what happened here on your road in a house long gone, 117 years ago. You look around at the young cutover woods and realize there were farmsteads and houses all along it, and women giving birth in back bedrooms and people falling ill and not getting better, even the sweet young girls and the youngest dearest babies.

Standing at the grave of Catherine and Jane King, who both left their parents at ages 14 and 10 in the second week of January, 1892 (doubtless from influenza), I resolved to make something worthwhile of the day. 

I don't know what happened to Jane, Emma, Delia and Grace Long, but I can only surmise, from the miniature headstone that remembers them, that they died very young. 

 Living in the 20th and now 21st centuries, we have been spared so much, and we simply cannot realize it, cannot carry through the thought of how incredibly blessed we are for more than a few minutes at a time. We fuss and fume about the tiny indignities; the slights and inconsiderations that life heaps on everyone. We let ourselves be consumed by small concerns, and forget to look around at the abundance that surrounds us, to listen to the laughter of our healthy children, to bury our noses in their sweet hair and thank God or grace or modern medicine or whatever combined forces that have worked together to allow us to watch them grow up.

  So I visit this cemetery every morning in clouds and rain and mist, in snow and in rare sunshine, and each morning I choose another stone to contemplate. I piece together a little story and so often it is of parents grieving for their young ones. And when I’ve wiped the tears away I turn back to the gravel road and kick my feet up as high in the air as I can (which is not very high any more, but high enough).  I stretch the live, strong muscles I have been given to use and set off down the road for home, resolved to make something of the day.

Look at the Light

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Favorite. What does that mean, when you love almost everything you see at a place like Mount Auburn Cemetery? I'm always kidding Kris about pointing our her "favorite" tree or stone or house or public space. I love people with lots of favorites. I can say a bluebird is my favorite bird and then up hops a Carolina wren and the whole thing falls apart. It's like that for both of us at Mount Auburn.

But there are some stones and inscriptions that are singular. Poet David McCord graced this earth for a century, and left us with this verse:

From this gorgeous couplet I gather that Mr. McCord suspected that Mount Auburn would be his last stop; that he didn't expect to be hopping from cloud to cloud in his celestial reward.  I get that. Might as well go out with a good poem.

He wonderfully honored his mother, who lies beside him. It's a little hard to read, so here it is:

Whenever she spoke or laughed or sang or read aloud
There was music for a long time...

Kris took me to the Cambridge Public Library, perhaps her favorite renovation and one which I regret not photographing. Edward Lifson did it so very well on his blog; see his tribute. The exterior is a perfect meld of bricky ponderous old and floaty glassy new, and the interior is heart-racingly glorious. There's a dedicated young adult reading room, stuffed with just the kind of books (I call them shoe books) that Phoebe loves--and many others. You know, the kind with a high-heeled shoe on the cover. The children's section, Kris pointed out, is on the top floor, not buried in the dank basement as it so often is in public libraries. It's bright and spacious and colorful. And there in the high-ceilinged, sunlit space, she found and showed me a book of verse by David McCord, with his epitaph right there on the page. Kris, a Friend of the Cambridge Public Library, says she burst into tears the first time she entered the renovated space. "My tax dollars at work," she thought. Standing in the library's vast stacks, in a place I would gladly live, I could only drool. I'll probably never be able to afford to live in a place with a library like that, and besides, Cambridge is short on box turtles, morel mushrooms and Kentucky warblers. We all find our places. 

photo by Hodge

As a college student, I used to curl up between this sphinx's paws to read. Kris just sent me this week's view. Man, Cambridge can be gray in the winter, but Hodge climbs over the miniature glaciers in between parking spaces, navigates the multicolored pack ice of the sidewalks; keeps walking and noticing. She knows it won't be long before lilacs, and besides, she's genetically cold-adapted, an insanely talented skier.

All right then, I'm coming back to the concept of "favorite." I do have a favorite stone at Mount Auburn Cemetery, and once again, Kris brought it to me. It's the stone of poet Robert Creeley, born about when my mom was, give or take six years. Friend of Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg. I like this 1972 photo, where he's surrounded by breakfast clutter in what looks like student housing, everything scrounged from somewhere.

photo from

 Writer of 60-plus books and mentor to many. I'm not familiar with his writing...yet.  Except for one couplet.  There's a lovely passage in his Wikipedia entry:

In his later years he was an advocate of, and a mentor to, many younger poets, as well as to others outside of the poetry world. He went to great lengths to be supportive to many and he had great sympathy for 'ordinary' people. Being responsive appeared to be essential to his personal ethics, and he seemed to take this responsibility extremely seriously, in both his life and his craft. In his later years, when he became well-known, he would go to lengths to make strangers, who approached him as a well-known author, feel comfortable. In his last years, he used the Internet to keep in touch with many younger poets and friends. He was rather shy, somewhat cautious, but he was not at all afraid; he would stand up in situations where many others would not.

photo by Hodge

Which brings me to the other side of his stone.

The simplest of stones, the simplest of sentiments, and yet the one, of all of them, that moves me the most. 

Perhaps it's because, much as I love a good gravestone dog or winged death's head, there's no frippery in between the reader and the power of the poet's word. It's his advice, in seven words, for living in the moment and nowhere else. Kris and I, we look. My two babies know how to look, too. When they come back from a walk and drag me outside to look at the light of the hour, I know they are learning how to live. 

 Thank you, Mr. Creeley.

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