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But What IS Curtis, Anyway?

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Anyone who reads my blog regularly must be finding it a trifle odd that I have yet to speculate on Curtis' breed makeup. My first impression of him as I studied the only photo I had was that he might be a pit bull mix. I was going on his brindle coloration, which shows up pretty frequently in pit bulls, and his wide, spatulate tongue, and what appeared to me to be a deep-chested, wide-headed build.

But when I saw Curtis in person, all that changed. He was much lighter in build than he looked in that photo, and his head especially was almost delicate.  I looked beyond his coloration to his build, and what I saw was an archetype, a classic village dog body plan. At only 35 pounds, the idea that he might be part pit vanished with a poof. He looked like a cur to me.

 Like most of you, I grew up with the word "cur" being pejorative. There was a medium sized yellow dog down the street from us when I was growing up in Virginia that looked a whole lot like Curtis. Pete was rather low-slung, had a straight tail, a slightly boxy head with pronounced stop, and small folded ears. My dad always referred to him as "that cur, Pete." Well, since our dachshund was always picking fights with Pete and coming home torn up, I didn't think much of Pete.  I thought DOD was just saying a bad dog word when he called him a "cur-dog." So "cur" held negative connotations for me. I didn't realize then (but now understand) that my father knew a cur when he saw one!

And I think I did, too. The evening I brought Curtis home, I sat down to start Googling. I knew he was no Heinz 57. I sensed he was a purebred, and set out to find out which.  I started with "Catahoula Leopard Dog," since that was a southern mountain breed I knew about. A couple more clicks got me into brindle curs, and photos of Curtis' breed popped up everywhere. There he was! Over and over! I love the Information Age!!

It turns out that a cur is an historic American dog, and a recognized breed. According to one source, the Mountain Cur was originally derived from settlers' English pointers, plus some kind of (undoubtedly British) terrier, both interbred with Native American village dogs, a breed now extinct.  It's been assigned to the Hound group, but it has been in AKC's Foundation Stock Service only since May 2017.

From the American Kennel Club website: (lightly edited)

"Mountain Curs are the true all-American pioneer dog. They were a necessity to the frontier family and it is likely that the southern mountains could not have been settled without them. They were one of the biggest assets that the settlers had in the rough and unforgiving country of the mountains. They guarded the family and livestock against wild animals or intruders.
They were used to catch, tree, or hole wild game for the family’s food. Until the 1940s, these dogs were part of the way of life for the frontiersmen. They used money from sold furs that their dogs hunted to provide for their families. The exact origins of this breed are undocumented, as there was no need for an official pedigree among the pioneers.
The Mountain Cur was declared a breed in 1957 with the organization of the Original Mountain Cur Breeders of America (OMCBA). The most common strains of Mountain Cur included the McConnell, Stephens, Ledbetter, Arline and York strains, the categories being named after the owners of the dogs."


It had been established through family history and research that Spanish Explorers brought the brindle, bob-tailed Curs to the South.  Hernando de Soto brought the brindle Curs to drive the hogs and provide protection against wild animals, while he explored the South and discovered the Mississippi River.  Hunters and settlers found the brindles when they came South.  
From Original Mountain Cur Breeders' Association website: 

"The colors of Mountain Curs of early days are dominant today.  Brindle, yellow, black and blue.  Some have white markings... All these dogs have the same general traits, such as strong treeing instinct on all game, courageous fighters and intelligence.  The Mountain Cur today is still a varmint dog!  Hunting whatever game his master wants.  He is also a guard dog, farm dog and family protector.  This dog is put down and ridiculed by some uninformed people because of the word "Cur".  In Mountain Cur the word "Cur" is used idiomatically and has NO meaning of "low" or "worthless".

Low or worthless? Perish the thought! He's noble!

Now, as I understand it, there are three varieties of Mountain Cur, bred for coloration and conformation. One of the smaller ones is the Treeing Tennessee Brindle. 

Aww, it's Curtis! Look at all those Curtii!!

Again from AKC's website:

"In the words of Treeing Tennessee Brindle Breeders founder, Rev. Earl Phillips: “Our original breeding stock came from outstanding brindle tree dogs from every part of the country.” Many came from the Appalachian Mountains, Ozark Mountains and the places in between.
In the early 1960s, Rev. Earl Phillips wrote a column for a national hunting dog magazine. By way of his magazine column, Rev. Phillips gathered a wealth of information about these brindle-colored Cur dogs and the people that had or knew about them. Those people who corresponded with Rev. Phillips commended these brindle Cur dogs on their hunting and treeing abilities. There was a group that were trying to promote Cur dogs of different colors but none were trying to exclusively find, preserve and promote the brindle Cur dogs.

"Early in 1967, Rev. Phillips contacted many of the people that he had corresponded with about brindle Cur dogs. He suggested the formation of an organization to preserve and promote these dogs. On March 21, 1967 the Treeing Tennessee Brindle Breeders Association was formed and recognized as a legal organization by the State of Illinois. The purpose of this Association is to breed a dog brindle in color, smaller in size, with a shorter ear and different in conformation than the Plott. The dog may have dew claws and white feet and breast. By selective breeding, this dog can have great scenting power, be an open trailer with good voice, and retain the great uncanny ability of the Old Brindle Cur dog to tree all kinds of game."

You coming along, Ma?


"The Treeing Tennessee Brindle is another variation of the coonhounds of America. They are smaller than other coonhounds, however, and only range from around 16 to 24 inches. They have catlike paws, and a choppy bawl for a bark. With small ears and a brindle body, this breed is discouraged from changing size, ear length, tail, or colors so that it doesn't also change category. Treeing Tennessee Brindles are good at open trailing and locating prey. Courageous hunters and companions, the Treeing Tennessee Brindle is said to have an abundance of "heart and try." They are a sensitive breed, however, and owners warn never to mistreat the breed. This breed can be more sensitive than normal toward neglect or abuse, and it is thought that once you mistreat them they will never treat you the same again. They are good natured and friendly dogs, getting along with anyone and everyone. This breed is intelligent, alert, and vocal. They love to bark because it is usually their job. The Treeing Tennessee Brindle is a an American breed with a strong work drive and friendly demeanor."


GPS USE:  3241 Coon Hunters Lodge Road, Jamestown, TN  38556   
I boldfaced the passage that really spoke to me of Curtis' nature. 
He loves everyone, but is very sensitive to tone of voice, and you don't have to correct him over and over. He remembers, he listens, and he wears his feelings on his sleeve.

So those of you who have suspected Curtis to be a Plott hound were close. But Plotts are bigger, much longer eared and deeper-muzzled than Treeing Tennessee Brindles. He's not really a hound. He's a Mountain Cur, more specifically a Treeing Tennessee Brindle. And isn't that cool?

At least that's what I think. See if you agree. I'm not going to drop $200 on a cheek swab DNA test. I pretty much know what I'm looking at.  Lil' ol' good for nothin' cur.

Curtis Comes Home

Monday, February 25, 2019


 I looked at Curtis, this little miracle on the seat beside me. It was like looking at the sun. Since Chet Baker, I hadn't seen a more naturally beautiful dog, or one whose every thought shone out of bright brown eyes the way this one's did.  I couldn't believe that he was coming home with me. Still shaken by the hugeness of it all, I was vacillating between elation and terror, but trying hard to project the impression that I, and not some random nameless power, was in charge here.  I needed to be strong for Curtis.

 It felt so amazing to be riding in my car with a dog again. To know we were headed home, and that he had been plucked from an uncertain fate, and was hurtling along into a very bright future. I couldn't keep the tears out of my eyes, as his gaze searched the highway stretching out before us. I felt from the very beginning that I could read Curtis' thoughts, and he could read mine.

I wanted to bring Curtis to Bill, as soon as I could. For as much as I'd missed having a dog, the thing that pulled me out of my trench of resistance was knowing that Bill needed a dog. Chemo has been terribly hard on him, and he's endured days on end when all he could think about was getting out of the whole miserable thing. Outlook is so much a part of the fight. No one could fault Bill for the feelings that flooded and overwhelmed him just as the deadly chemicals did. I knew that having a warm, loving animal to love and hold would be immensely therapeutic for him and Wendy, too. Since she'd been with a Springer pup on her South Africa trip, she'd been talking about getting a golden retriever puppy. While I perfectly understood the urge to have a warm, cuddly puppy around to love and be loved, I was afraid for them both that a new puppy would be too much atop too much for Bill's devoted primary caretaker. It seemed to me that adopting a grown up dog who needed a home would be a better solution. I could shoulder his care, and just share him so all they'd have to handle is the joy he brought. But it had to be the right dog. And that's where my beautiful guiding spirits lent an enormous hand. All I had to do was accept their help. All I had to do was look at Kelly's Instagram post, the first thing on my feed Saturday, February 16. See the dog. Read her description of his singular personality.  Send a barrage of texts to Kelly. Change my travel plans. Stay another night in Columbus. Wait outside the shelter for it to open on Tuesday. Look into Curtis' eyes. And press, with trembling hand, the red YES button. No big deal, right? Then why am I bawling?

  As we rolled along, I made plans to unload the car (I still had all my luggage from the trip to Oregon); give Curtis a bath, and take him over to the pink house to meet Bill. I had still breathed not one word of this momentous event to anyone. My heart was so full with the secret and the import of it all that it was about to burst. I was on the edge of tears or laughter the whole ride home.

I'm not crying, much.

Especially when Curtis sat right on the console, where Chet used to sit, and leaned on me, the way Chet used to.  And then he kissed me! Bawww! I will say that Curtis' kiss is far more gemmunly than Chet's. That Bacon would French you faster than you could say Pbbbth!! 

We made it home. 

I'm so glad, as excited as I was, that I thought to make this little video of Curtis walking up the sidewalk of his new forever home. On the ride home, he alternated between looking somewhat apprehensively at the highway ahead and curling up, eyes closed, in the back seat. I watched the thoughts crossing his expressive face, and I could sense that he was afraid that this car trip would end badly: perhaps in a visit to the vet, or to placement in another shelter. It was the oddest thing to see him retreat farther and farther into his shell as my car slowed and negotiated the curves and final turns into the driveway. Wouldn't you think a dog would sit up and want to see where he was headed at the point where the tires crunched on gravel?

But he didn't. He curled up tighter. Even when I turned the car off, Curtis refused to look out the windows. Oh, my heart. Oh, you poor darling.

Watch as it sinks in on Curtis, the Thinking Dog, that he just might have hit the shelter dog jackpot. 


Yep, I let him out of the car for the very first time without a leash. This journey is all about leaps of faith.

They say I must be one of the wonders
Of God's own creation
And as far as they see, they can offer
No explanation
Ooo, I believe, fate, fate smiled
And destiny laughed as she came to my cradle
Know this child will be able
Laughed as my body she lifted
Know this child will be gifted
With love, with patience, and with faith
She'll make her way, she'll make her way
Natalie Merchant, "Wonder"

Making the Leap

Friday, February 22, 2019

I headed to the animal shelter on Tuesday morning, having spent the night at Kelly's house in Columbus  (I'm writing on Friday). I'd gotten in around midnight from Medford, Oregon. and was tacking another night and day onto my trip. I must really be thinking hard about this dog. I'd told nobody what I was up to, just told my family I was too tired to make the drive home Monday night. Which was not a lie.

 I walked up to the counter at CHA Rescue in Columbus, OH at the stroke of noon, when they opened. "I'm here to see Curtis," I said, very quietly. The words sounded so strange coming out of me. I still couldn't believe I was standing at the counter of an animal shelter, saying them. I'd always said that if I was going to have a dog, I didn't want to inherit anyone else's mistakes. I wanted to craft a puppy from nine weeks on, and make it, as much as possible, conform to the image in  my head.

I may be biased, but Chet Baker was one CUTE puppy, wearing his tubesock jacket.

I did that with Chet Baker, and deep inside I had a hard time believing that a grown dog could fit my needs as well as one I'd shaped from puppyhood. But here I was. "I'm here to see Curtis."

There was something about his smile, and the way Kelly wrote about him, that gave me faith enough to at least go look.
To meet this dog, who might wind up going home with me.

I was actually trembling because I had fallen far enough into his spell to know that I'd probably leave with Curtis. And that prospect terrified me. Going back into the responsibility, the expense, the time commitment of caring for a dog; the constant back-of-the-mind worry about what to do with him every time I had to leave. I'd had a year and a half of worry-free travel, and I had loved it. But I'd also had a year and a half without a dog's warm popcorn scent, without the feel of a satiny coat, without  companionship on hikes and runs, without the laughter and love of a dog. It had been a good year, until it wasn't a good year any more.

And there he was, behind a stainless steel grid.  He didn't get up when Carrie unlatched his door. All the other dogs were standing at their doors, barking. Curtis was silent, watchful. He wasn't barking. He was thinking.

She clipped a leash on his collar and handed it to me. We walked together to a spacious exercise area with a single bench.   I could see Curtis was a favorite, though he'd been at the shelter for less than a week. His style reminded me of someone.

I had read through his medical records. He'd been dropped at a southern Ohio shelter on December 27 by his owner's parents. Curtis' owner had to go into rehab, and left two dogs with them. It was they who had surrendered Curtis. 

When he came in, Curtis couldn't bear weight on his left hind leg. He had ticks, and tested positive for both Lyme disease and Ehrlichiosis. He was intact, and was said to be four years old. His teeth were in bad shape. Over the next month and a half, a dog fostering organization paid to give him the veterinary care he'd been denied for too long. Six teeth were pulled (mostly lower incisors, and one canine). He was neutered, and given a total of almost 40 days of doxycycline for tick-borne disease, as well as Clindamycin for his teeth. He got anti-inflammatories and painkillers, too. The hind leg lameness resolved with treatment. Whether it was caused by tick-borne disease or an injury, it got better. Finally, Curtis was ready for adoption, and he was accepted by CHA.  

He arrived in Columbus on Wednesday, February 13, and I saw Kelly's Instagram post on Saturday, Feb. 16. Now, Kelly has all of seven posts on Instagram. What are the chances that I'd be scrolling through my feed and see one of seven posts by my friend?

Is he already someone's darling?

And now here it was the next Tuesday, February 19, and this pretty little dog was, against all odds, still here and I was walking him up and down the dog run. I stopped and sat on the bench. Curtis leapt up beside me and leaned against me. Oh. It was clear he wanted to be with me. 

I asked him to stay, and walked to the end of the run. He never took his eyes off me. OK! He leapt off the bench and ran to me. He had a wigwag in his run. I fretted about that hind leg.

He kept jumping up to sit on the bench. And he made sure to keep a paw or two on my bag. So, you know, if I picked up my bag to go, I'd have to move him...or take him, too.

"He is WORKIN' you! My goodness!"  Carrie laughed. 'Struth. That dog stared into my eyes the entire time. He was lasering out his plan for our future together. He was sending me pictures of us, together, for good.

He leaned on me and licked my chin. I looked down at my fleece and jeans and they were absolutely coated in dog hair. Ew. Oh. Ack. I'd been spoiled by Chet's tiny eyelash hairs. 

I thought about drifts of dog hair on my kitchen floor. Hair on the butter in its dish. (Right, Jeanne?)
 I thought about whether I should be doing this at all. Did I really want to get back into dog ownership again, with all it entailed? Couldn't someone tell me what to do, other than this dog, staring holes in me?

 I milled around, threw a toy for him, sat down on the bench. He dutifully fetched it, twice, then laid it down and resumed staring into my eyes. 

"Fetching is stupid. Let's go. What happens now is you take me home."

The sun winked out in a wooly gray sky. 

 It was cold out there. Curtis was shivering. We had to go back inside. There was nothing else to do in the dog run. Carrie put him back in his cell so I could fill out the paperwork. 
 Fill out the paperwork! Am I doing this??
Curtis hesitated, but walked slowly back in and curled up on his hammock. The door clanged behind him. He sighed and put his head on his paws. I could feel despair wash out of him and over me. Another fail, he was thinking. I barely made it to the restroom before bursting into tears. I was so conflicted, so unsure, walking in circles, sobbing. It seemed so cruel to put him back in the cell, to dash his sweet doggish hopes, even for a few minutes. And the thought that I might be dashing them altogether sent me into a new gale of tears.

I got a clipboard, snuffling, and filled out two pages of forms. Did I own or rent my house? Who else lived there with me? How would I handle misbehavior like barking or digging? (What would be the right answer here? I wrote, "Firm correction." Was the yard fenced? I smiled. A form could not begin to describe the situation this dog would be inheriting. How do you describe doggie Valhalla?

I started to cry again. I needed to go see Curtis, to ask him if this was the right thing to do. 


Just as before, he didn't get up. He looked into my eyes, never breaking his gaze.  I stood silently, looking back at him from about ten feet away. 

"Everything will be all right," he said.  "You'll see."

OK Curtis. Come on. I'm going to take you home, hair and misgivings and firm corrections and all.

You won't be sorry.  I promise. 

Missing Chet Baker

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Looking right into my soul, he was. Because he was a higher being, and because he wanted a bikkit. I have been missing this little feller so much lately. It's almost been worse lately than right after he left. Been needing kisses, and not getting any. Missing the popcorn smell of his pawdypads, the click of his toenails, the inkblot in all my landscape photos. Missing everything about him.

It's been an even year and a half since Chet Baker left us, and I have steadfastly refused to consider replacing him. I have straight-armed any number of kind people who suggested that I should consider another dog. It had been just too damn freaking hard to lose him. I didn't want to have to go through that again, ever. My heart couldn't take any more. Plus, I said, I have no backup; nobody else in the house to let a dog out, to feed one when I'm called away. I'd been enjoying the freedom of coming and going without a thought. Can't tie myself down like that again, I said.

In the stone-hard center of my heart, I knew that there was a dog out there waiting for me to find him, but I would never have said that to anyone but Shila. OK, I did say it to Shila.

When the time is right, I thought; when I'm finally ready, the Universe will present a dog to me. I will NOT go looking. He will just appear to me. Maybe come up to my door, dirty and starving. That was the scenario I most often imagined.
And it will not be just any dog. It will be The Dog. 
I will feel an instant connection, and I will know this is it. There will be no room for doubt. If I have any doubt, it isn't the one.

Scrolling through my Instagram feed on Saturday, Feb. 16, my heart gave a flip when I saw my sweet friend Kelly's post about a Valentine's fundraiser for CHA, the private animal rescue organization which runs an exemplary shelter--clean and spacious-in a Columbus industrial park. Kelly volunteers there, placing dogs in need with people in need of dogs. Kelly knew Chet Baker. She knows a good dog when she sees one.


If you click on the photo you can see that Curtis' tail is blurred because it's wagging so hard.

I really liked this dog's size, carriage, and looks, but I liked Kelly's description of his personality even more. Whoa. This dog is up for adoption? Throwing caution to the wind, I left a public comment:
 "Is he already someone's darling?"

 If you know me, you know that this is atypical. I am much more a private message kind of inquirer.

When Kelly didn't reply, I tried to forget about Curtis. I waited a few hours, knowing I often don't see my Instagram comments or messages for days.  Oh, screw it. I'll message her.
So I sent her a text. And she replied, "I'm sorry, but I believe Curtis was adopted this afternoon." 

My heart had floated up to the ceiling, and now it sank back down like a tired balloon.  Too late. 
I guess it wasn't meant to be. Put Curtis out of your mind now, Zick, and listen to your more sensible self.

Thanks to a huge winter storm and flight cancellations, it took about 34 hours to make my punctuated way to a deliriously wonderful time at Klamath Falls Winter Wings Festival in Oregon. I had two talks to give, and a field trip to help with, and a whole lot of fabulous birds to photograph. And I was just winding down from the festival on Sunday afternoon when I got a text from Kelly. 

"It turns out Curtis is still available! I was mistaken yesterday. Because he strikes me as a potential match for your lifestyle and desired dog personality, I wanted you to know he's still adoptable. Of course: no pressure. And shoot me a text if you have any questions."

Oh, I had questions. And man, the whiplash of thinking Curtis was inaccessible, talking myself down with all the reasons I didn't need a dog in my life, and then wha wha whaaa? He's available after all? 
I replied,

"Wow. Thank you for letting me know. Gotta think about that. I wasn't expecting that. I don't get into Columbus until nearly midnight Monday, unfortunately, if all goes well." At that point, I was only wanting to go home. I was dead tired. Winter travel during huge snowstorms will do that to you. Staying another night in Columbus to meet a dog I'm not even sure I should be looking at? Mmmm. Hmmmm. Derr.

"No problem. It's a huge decision (at least, it should be). By all means, let it simmer."

I got Curtis' story (more on that later) and I thought about it all evening. I was thinking about him when I woke up to start my journey from Medford OR to Columbus on Monday. I texted Kelly. 

"I feel like I should meet him before deciding anything. Obviously." 

Kelly said she'd see if he was still there when she went on shift Monday afternoon. I would be flying all that day. When I landed in Phoenix, I saw some messages from Kelly.

"Well Curtis is still here! I'm very surprised. Thought he'd be snatched up already. He's 4 yrs. old, 38 lb. As far as breed, straight-up Heinz 57."

I stared at the photos. This might be the perfect dog. Fabulous personality, and this beautiful?  Striped like a gol-durn tiger??

With a completely black face and soft little black ears that flop over? And a great big spoon-tongue for kissing? (Also, how cute is Kelly here? Look how she lights up around this dog!)

 The first two photos hooked me, but this last one killed me daid. Thanks a LOT, Kelly, you minx.

There is someone in those eyes, an  old soul. Someone with a sense of humor and a strong sense of self. Dogs who will look directly at a camera are very, very rare. Dogs who enjoy it are rarer still. I had one of those rare ones for twelve beautiful years. I know. Now here this dog was, looking at the camera like Chet used to. I could see him bombing all my flower photos, durn him, just because he thinks he's a better subject than some little flar.

Torturing myself, I went online to see if I could find Curtis. OMG. There he was, looking perky af, for any Tom, Dick or Mary to set their sights on.  Gulp. Who else was looking at Curtis tonight? The shelter wouldn't open until noon on Tuesday. Would he still be there when I got there? If I could make myself DO this?

This is probably the worst cliffhanger I've ever posted. Sorry.


 Yep, that's me, cackling. 

Another Little Patient

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

She was blind, or very nearly so, and I'd been watching her for a couple of weeks, waiting for the moment when she'd be so debilitated she gave up and sat on the ground. That moment came on a brutally cold morning after a snowy night. As I went to fill the feeders, there she sat, quietly on the snow at the base of a birch. She had given up.

I have no photos of the moment, but this is what she looked like--her eyes pasted shut on both sides.

This poor little creature has taken a sunflower heart from the feeder, and brought it up to the chamaecyparis just outside my studio window to process it. She's too weak to compete at the bustling feeders.

 She can see just enough through one slitted eye to avoid capture. Her time will come. I hope I'm there when it does.

What's felling these birds is Mycoplasma, a dread infection better known as house finch disease. And we have house finches to thank for introducing it into the general population of native species. Not their fault--we brought them to the East back in the dark ages, when keeping wild birds in cages was an accepted practice. And when they were released, a tiny founder population of perhaps a hundred birds escaping their crate at a New York airport, they bred and bred. But they were inbred, and they had no natural resistance to the germs they found here. And so it began.

Now, Mycoplasma stalks more than a dozen species, and the list is growing--everything from goldfinches to blue jays.

This bird was incredibly lucky to be picked up by somebody with a $75 bottle of an antibiotic called Tylan, and the resolve to cure her.

She would live in a roomy cage in my bat/bird room for the next three weeks, drinking water laced with bitter Tylan and sweetened with Stevia. :) It helps. 

She hated being caged.

Most of the time she looked like this

but every once in awhile I could sneak into the corner with my telephoto and hope to capture her at rest. Yes, her tail is a mess thanks to bashing it against the wires. Ideally, she should be kept in a nylon, soft-sided cage. I'll get there. Still hobbling along with my archaic old equipment. Trying to do no harm, sometimes failing. Believe it or not, I was able to preen it back into near- perfect shape when I finally caught her for release. No feathers were broken; they were just mussed.

She pigged out on sunflower chips and drank copious amounts of Tylan/Stevia water. Good girl.

For some reason, Blogger gags on my videos. I'll post one, and it's there. Post another, and the first one disappears. Trying to post two at once is nearly impossible. I'll beat my head against Blogger's wall for hours, trying to get these videos to take.

Trying again, after both vanished. Yep. Soon as I get one posted, the other vanishes. Man, that's frustrating. I'm gonna post this quick while they're still both visible. Thought you'd be lifted up, as I am, by the little perchicoree! she voices as I open my hand. She did say thank you. :)

I'm speaking twicet at Wings of Winter Festival, Klamath Falls, OR, this coming weekend, Feb. 15-16 2019! Talking about a snowy owl's crazy journey on Friday, and about baby birds on Saturday. I cannot WAIT. Haven't been anywhere for months. And the birding there is off the hook fabulous! Come see me! See left sidebar of this blog for details!

Crazy Bat Lady

Friday, February 8, 2019

Breathing a huge sigh of satisfaction and relief. I've just put the bats back to bed. I've been feeding a big brown bat named Ambrose every night for the last two weeks. He was found by an Instagram pal of mine in a bathroom sink. Because of the weird and delicate web of Instagram, Leah knew I work with bats, knew to call on someone who'd know what to do for this wee foundling.

 Bats that are found in heated homes in winter are in trouble, usually because their normal hibernacula (rhymes with Dracula!) have become too cold. People's pleas for help with bats they've found tend to come in when the Polar Express sweeps down from the Arctic with bitter temperatures. Bats that find themselves freezing to death, I surmise, somehow make their way from attics and sofits down into to warmer places, and that brings them into contact with people. That doesn't usually go well for the bat, unless someone like Leah is in the mix. She picked the little bat up with a hand towel, placed him in a box and taped it up securely. We met at a pet shop in town, where I was going to buy my third critter keeper so I could accommodate the new arrival (I've already got two bats in care).

Ambrose (named for one of Leah's adorable sons) came in weighing only ten grams. That's dangerously low for a big brown bat (low normal weight is 17 gm). They get as heavy as 22 gm., but after that, they're too fat to fly. I knew I had my hands full with this little guy. He was a lousy, reluctant eater, dehydrated and down. I sometimes had to coax him for ten minutes or more to take his first mealworm. Once he started eating, he'd down 7 or more at a go. I doggedly kept at it, and after two weeks, he was the bright-eyed, active little sprite you see in this video, weighing in at 16 gm. ( I weigh the bats before each feeding). I figured that was close enough to normal, and with a great sigh of relief, readied him for hibernation with a final big feeding.

Because we had three nights in a row in the 50's, I decided to wake up the other two bats, Lyle and Murcie, for a midwinter feeding. I let them sleep until nights get warm enough that, were they in the wild, they might go out looking for moths. So for three nights, I was feeding all three of them, and that took well over an hour each evening. I couldn't wait for it to get cold again so I could put them back to bed. By about 8 pm, I'm fried, and bats eat best after 9, I've found, so it was a struggle for me to stay up late enough to get them all taken care of.

I love this little unexpected flitter Ambrose executes, onto an old license plate in my bat room.

This is Lyle. He's also a refugee from a house. 

And here's Murcie, the biggest and strongest of the three. Also the most opinionated.

What's involved in putting them back to sleep for a few weeks is cleaning their boxes and taking out their soiled linens (they sleep in hand towels, folded over and taped to the top of the boxes). I replace the paper toweling on the floor and put fresh clean linens in.  

You see that the boxes are lined with nonskid drawer liner, extra thick. This is so they don't break their delicate finger bones on the plastic sides of the box, beating their wings.

Washing bat linens. It's pretty disgusting. Not going in my washing machine, nossir.

I keep the condos by a poorly-insulated door in the basement. It gets pretty darn cold down there on the floor, so I put the critter keepers up on a box.

I also cover their condos so they aren't drafty. The all-important thermometer gets checked frequently. It shouldn't drop below freezing. Ideally you keep them between 37-50 for torpor. I've learned to adjust the temperature by moving them closer to, or farther away, from the cold outside door.

 And there they sleep, for three to four weeks at a time, until the next natural warmup comes. Then I'll wake them, weigh them and feed them for a couple of nights. I've little doubt my bats eat more in winter than wild bats do, but I feel a responsibility to keep them in tip top condition, and I worry about them getting dehydrated, too.

 In order to qualify as a bat caretaker, I had to take a course  in handling rabies vector species from the wonderful Barbara Ray of the Ohio Wildlife Center, and I've had two rabies inoculations--you have to provide proof that you've had the course and the shots before you can get a permit to keep bats. It is not for everyone, that's for sure. There is so very much to know about them, and they're teaching me more every single day. They are my best teachers. 

I feel I'm getting better and better at handling, housing and understanding bats. I'm very fortunate to have a cold basement where they can be safely overwintered. I shudder at the thought of keeping them warm and having to feed them all winter long, especially with all I've got on my plate now. I've done that and it's a ton of work. More importantly, I think it's bad for the bats to be kept warm in winter. There's a considerable risk of overfeeding them and making them too fat to fly. I know, because I've done that. Sometimes I think learning is just doing everything wrong until you figure out how to do it better, how to do it right. Here's a post about my fat bats
If you just can't get enough batitude, keep hitting Newer Post for the story of Bat Boot Camp. :)

I don't overfeed my bats any more. I keep them lean and sweet. Lyle again.

I find working with bats very rewarding, because gentle handling usually results in a tractable bat. They may start out terrified and chittering, but you can win them over with time, food and gentle hands.  I've only had one bat (Drusilla) who came in horrid and remained horrid. I laugh just remembering her chewing away on my (double) glove. I loved her anyway. These three are total sweethearts by comparison.

 Bats, for me, combine all the things that are most wonderful about birds and mammals. They're delicate and very beautiful, and they employ flapping flight like birds do. Yet they're possessed of the softest fur imaginable, and the most winsome faces, like very small puppies. What a combo! Add to that the ability to survive for months without food or water, and you have a very special animal indeed. Miracles, they are. Just miracles. And they help me every bit as much as I help them.

Greenhouse Apocalypse III

Friday, February 1, 2019


I was in town with Bill from dawn to 3 pm on January 31. It was famously cold, two below zero, and Jupiter, the crescent moon, and Venus were in perfect alignment in the southeast sky when I awoke. Color bled up from the horizon, tangerine into peacock into midnight blue, slowly fading to salmon to lilac to turquoise as the light came up. It was so beautiful I kept imploring Bill to look, but he was too sick to enjoy it. We were on our way to a full day’s chemo, and he wasn’t looking forward to it one bit.

We are watching him disappear, watching his body and his energy, his Bill-ness ebbing away, and it’s happening so fast we can’t even believe it from one day to the next. There’s nothing his doctor can do about it, either, but to keep slamming him with biweekly baths of poison to try to kill the cancer before it kills him. He’s lost fifty pounds. His pants fall off him now, but he doesn’t want to buy new ones. “Just more stuff to give to Goodwill,” he says. He doesn’t have any more belt holes to tighten.

I try to make him comfortable, but I can’t. I try to give him foods he’ll enjoy. I try to engage him in conversation, to redirect his thoughts to something other than his sorrow and dissolution and disillusionment, to all the things he has to give up, and all the things he believes he won’t get to experience. Which is everything. Everything. It is difficult. He is difficult. He doesn’t want to do any of this. He wants things the way they were. So do I, so do I, my love. I wish for a magic wand. I wish for anything good, however small. I scratch and search but everything I offer seems so meaningless. I’m not doing enough. Nobody can.

When his treatment was finally over, I brought him gently home, helped him get back into his pajamas and tucked him into bed for a nap at the pink house. I came back to the red house and when I stepped into the foyer it felt awfully cold. I checked the thermostat. It said 57. The vents were ice cold. I ran out the front door and around the side of the house and as I neared the greenhouse, I could see wilted geranium flowers, red as old blood, plastered up against the wall. Opened the door, and was hit in the face with the stink of dying green. It was 22 inside. Everything was dead. I gathered up an armload of small succulents that hadn’t yet wilted limp and brought them in the house, figuring they were just going to take longer to die than the thin-leaved ones, but maybe they were somehow still living.

Creole Lady, her leaves hanging limp as washcloths, standing 8’ tall, and  dead. The Path, her glorious golden red flower, blasted and dead, buds hanging straight down, her leaves dark bronze. This is my third such greenhouse freeze. I know this stench, I know this grief, I know the irreversibility of it all, and how it feels to lose beautiful things you’ve loved for years, without a whisper of warning.



I didn’t wail, didn’t weep. I just closed the door and went back into the house to try to figure out what to do. If the gas line was frozen at the wellhead, I was screwed, screwed, screwed. And, with the temperatures below zero, and the welljack jammed and inoperative for at least 2 ½ years, that was a highly likely scenario. It hadn’t pumped for two winters. The oil company doesn’t give a rat’s ass, either. They have all but abandoned this and many other shallow wells in the area, operating them on a skeleton crew. Who cares if people’s houses go cold? One by one, the welljacks jam up and quit pumping, and none of them get fixed. I’ve been told the natural pressure at the wellhead would keep me in gas. OK. I'd go through a second winter like this. But if it wasn’t frozen at the wellhead, if there was just some condensation in the line, brought out by the deep cold, then sudden bright sun, I could trip the regulator and have gas again. Too late for my greenhouse plants, but at least the ones in the house wouldn’t have to die, too. I wouldn’t lose the aquarium, the orchids, the pipes to this cruel freeze.

 I called my neighbor, Bob Harris. He told me to call the guy who tends the well. Jeff’s wife, who answered, was very sympathetic. She said he’d call me back, and he did. Oh yeah, he said, he’d seen the wellhead pressure fall to zero on my well around noon. (Oh, good. Thanks.) He told me to trip the regulator by the back door and I should get my gas back. While I was gathering tools to do that, Bob drove up in his white truck, honking. I thawed the frozen regulator cap with a Ziploc bag full of hot water, then unscrewed it. The regulator tripped with a hiss, and we were in business again. Bob and I re-lit the pilots on the big furnace, the water heater, and the small furnace. We re-lit the greenhouse heater. We made sure everything was working. I popped him a beer and we sat at the kitchen table and talked. I asked him about all the neighbors, and I told him some things he didn’t know about some of them. He told me more about Gary, who ate pileated woodpeckers and pretty much all the squirrels for miles around. About what it looked like inside that white farmhouse the day Gary died, the bottles and cans in piles.

I wondered why we’d never done this, sat down at the kitchen table and talked. It was because in 25 years, I’d never asked him for help. I’d asked him not to mow his milkweed, and he’d been happy to help with that.  He’d been so nice about it, too. Now I needed real help. I have no one now who can take over when I’m too rattled to think straight. No one to lean on, no one in charge but me. So I call my neighbor, and he comes over and helps me, and he says he will do that any time. That’s good, that’s money in the bank. And Lord knows if there was anything I could do for him and Debbie and Sam, I’d be there. Imagine, feeling community after 25 years. It takes awhile when you think you have it all figured out, when you think you've got this. And then you realize you don’t, and you are unequivocally alone, and nothing about that is going to change. You pick up the phone and call, and he’s there ten minutes later, in your driveway. What a feeling.

I called Phoebe and told her everything in the greenhouse was dead. She said she remembered the first time it happened when she was quite young, coming in and seeing me in a fetal position on the bedroom floor, crying and crying. And she thought, “Well, she still has me and Liam.” I felt a rush of shame, that I’d let her see me cry over some flowers. That she’d had to have that thought. That it seemed to her that flowers mattered more to me than she and her brother did. It sure looked that way to a child. If anything, this is a time for facing hard truths and bad behavior, for telling the truth to each other. 

That wailing woman was the old me, the one with the luxury of crying over dead geraniums. That was the one who hadn’t seen real loss yet. I cried a lot the second time, it froze too, in November 2013. But I cried for all that was happening around me, things I couldn't reconcile or control. I referred to it as Greenhouse Apocalypse, the plants a metaphor for a far greater loss.

I met this third freeze with a different face. For this event, I had nothing left but numb resolve. Face it, they’re all dead. Let’s see about getting some heat in the house, or I die, too. I told myself I didn’t care about a bunch of plants. They were just things, after all. I don’t have cancer. There’s that. And for awhile I didn’t feel anything. I made myself a nice dinner, knowing that would help. I wondered at my steely calm as I ate in the silence of the evening. It frightened me. Was my soul frozen, gone? It started to hurt about six hours later, after dark, about the time I'd usually go down to open the door and say, "Hello, Ladies!", to stand under the soft multi-colored twinkle lights and look at the lush flowers in half-darkness. I figured I'd better check in with someone, so I called Shila, left a message and she called me back. I told her what had happened today. And there was something about her shock and anguish that broke through the ice on my heart. “I am a little…sad about it,” I stammered, and my voice broke. Yeah. That's it. I’m a little sad.

My reactions, I realized with a sinking feeling, are those of a dog who has been kicked so many times it no longer thinks that’s anything unusual. It’s just what happens. With everything that’s happening to Bill, I’m abashed to feel sad about a bunch of plants. Just another kick. So what. I don’t want to go down that path, of weeping. There is too much far more worth weeping about. I haven't even been able to cry about him—there’s too much to do yet to try to help him. What good would crying do? I moved through the house like a robot, got ready for bed, slept two hours, and awoke to begin the grieving.

For Creole Lady, with the Hawaiian sunset in every blossom.

Same flower, before and after freeze. Ain't it grand.

 The Path, like a fire burning, lighting the what? 
What 21 degrees does to a tropical hibiscus. Same flower, below.  

That hybrid balcony geranium that just wouldn’t stop blooming for anything. The willow leaved fig, 8 years in bonsai training, almost a yard tall, magnificent with its great coil of roots, now black, dead.


That giant rosebud geranium smuggled as a cutting from Ecuador, just coming into bloom almost two years later, dead now. All the fuchsias, all the Happy Thought geraniums, my very favorites, all thinking about blooming. All dead. The day before, I had just shown my “woman cave” to Geoff and Paco and Ben, taken their picture posing with the two enormous hibiscus trees I loved so much. I remember telling them the trees were too big for me to move now, so I hoped it wouldn’t freeze up this winter. But I’d known all along that it would.

The gas line would freeze again this year. I'd lose everything, and I knew it. So in early December, I decided to make a plant ark. I went through the greenhouse, gathering up one specimen of each plant that I’d be heartbroken to lose: the pink fuchsia called "Trandshen Bonstedt;" the plectranthus "Cerveza ‘n’ Lime" from Donna; an impala lily seedling; the chartreuse-leaved geranium called "Happy Thought." One dwarf pomegranate seedling. The yellow kalanchoe that makes me happy. A begonia called Jurassic Watermelon. A painstakingly rooted cutting of the willow-leaved fig bonsai, only three inches tall. I took cuttings of geraniums Vancouver Centennial and Rosina Read, gathered them up and brought them into the house, to grow on the windowsills, where they wouldn’t die instantly when the gas went off. I made a genetic bank, taking just enough DNA to get me through when everything had to die. 

I even bought a heat mat and got an old fishtank and made great plans to take cuttings of Creole Lady and The Path. Bottom heat is the only way to root those, I'd decided, having failed at it for years. I was going to do it as soon as I could get some cuttings without flower buds. I’d wait, let them bloom first. I needed every flower so badly. And then on December 16 Bill was diagnosed, and later that week I carried the fishtank and the heat mat to the basement, because I suddenly no longer cared to try to start anything. It was more than I could do just to be present, to help.

But I kept my little ark of treasured plant starts in the main house, and I watered them faithfully, and they began to grow nicely. So I haven’t lost everything. I have the genetic material for some of my favorite plants, right here. I had taken out a little insurance. The big hibiscus I loved so much are dead. I can’t escape to the warm, softly lit greenhouse any more. I'm not putting anything back in there, no way. So what. I’m a little sad. But I don’t have cancer.

 Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation  can that which is indestructible in us be found. 
 Pema Chödron

 January 31, 2019


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