Me, Monkey

I have, as I always do, let the weeds begin to grow on my blog. This is me, vowing to you to do better. I will keep that vow. At least for a little while.

I can think of very few occasions on which I have actually been frightened by a non-human animal. In fact, I can only bring only one to mind. Several years ago, my daughter and I took a trip to Sarawak and spent a night in a National Park near Kuching. Signs on the way into and around the park warned us – Beware Naughty Monkeys – which made me think the monkeys would be mischievous, possibly in delightful and photogenic ways. We had come, at least in part, to see the shy proboscis monkeys, and we did see several of those, though far away, hidden in the trees.
The other monkeys, the naughty monkeys, we saw from much closer up. As we were taking our luggage into the dorm, a troop descended from the trees and surrounded us. A large male moved toward me at some speed, screaming furiously. I have learned on this and many other occasions, that I am not a fast thinker or a fast actor. When surprised, I freeze, which is sometimes a good thing to do and sometimes not. Even as he was charging, I expected him to turn aside at the last minute. He did not. I saw that he was furiously erect, in both meanings of that word.
He grabbed for my arm, though it turned out to be my toilet kit that he wanted. Snatching it from me, he took it back up into the tree where he opened it, took out each item, bit it, and threw it angrily to the ground as it turned out to be, I’m guessing here, of course, less delicious than he’d hoped. The whole time he continued to scream and display. The rest of the troop kept a ring around us, silent, but menacing.
The alpha monkey came down from the tree and charged me again, but another tourist, a large man I didn’t know, moved between us with an admirable, though possibly misguided conviction. It worked. The monkeys moved on to other tourists and I was able to retrieve my personal items, all now with tooth marks, but mostly still useful. My daughter and I took a long hike, had a nice dinner, and laid our sleeping bags out on the bunk beds where, once the lights were out, we were immediately aware that we shared the room with Rodents of Unusual Size. But that’s another story.

Corinne Cox, dove

Corinne Cox is an NYC resident and a graduate student of the English Education program at Columbia. She also, in a former life, was a beloved student of mine the quarter I taught at UC Santa Cruz. She sends me the following sad and sober tale:

Kate had been one of my best friends since we met while writing for our middle school newspaper. Now that we were a couple years out of high school, we could no longer bond over photoshopping the vice principal’s neck out of his yearbook pictures or conspiring to turn delegates against their countries’ own policies at Model United Nations conferences. We were running out of common ground.
Kate still lived in her childhood bedroom, which was unchanged from when I had met her. She had recently found Jesus and, through him, moderate-conservative politics. I had moved to a seedy studio apartment in our hometown’s neighboring metropolis to attend community college, where I had found an abundance of vice. Kate saw me as someone who had left the flock, while I had come to regard her as someone who buried her head in the sand.
We sat silently in Kate’s car after a strained lunch in which we had slogged through our usual list of safe conversation topics. I pretended to be entranced by a text message while Kate half-sang along to a pop song on the radio that she didn’t know the words to. Then Kate pointed at something excitedly, and I followed her finger’s trajectory skyward.
A pristine white dove sailed above us against a backdrop of cloudless blue sky. Kate marveled at it, praising its rarity and beauty, proclaiming the dove to be a blessing and a sign of good things to come. Then came our simultaneous realization that the dove was gliding along an invisible hypotenuse on course to intersect with the speeding yellow Hummer in front of us.
The result of the impact between delicate bird and massive, velocious machine was an explosion of a thousand white feathers that filled the air, some falling gently upon Kate’s windshield. Kate was only able to squeak in horror at the indignity that had befallen her blessing; I erupted into a fit of unhinged laughter and only managed to compose myself when the intensity of Kate’s disgusted glare became too much to endure. Still shaking her head, Kate dropped me off at my parents’ house, never to speak to me again.
I am grateful to the dove that floated so elegantly into the path of a behemoth that brought it to a swift and violent end. The extinguishing of its own life euthanized a long-dying friendship, a necessary conclusion brought on by the hardships of birds.

SeaWorld, Tilikum

I have just begun to hear about Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish, which centers on the Orca, Tilikum, a performer at SeaWorld, but apparently has much to say about SeaWorld’s Orca programs in general. SeaWorld has responded pre-screening and the film-maker’s response to the response can be found here:

Sue Hall, dog

This week, my good friends, Sue and Emma, lost their beloved Lucy. I am cross-posting here what Sue said on her facebook page in honor of one of the world’s great dogs. Sue writes:

We said goodbye to Lucy this morning.

After giving into pressure from a persistent 6-year-old Emma, we adopted Lucy from Second Chance. She’d had a rough start in life but quickly fit into our household of cats, a snake, pet rats, and chickens. She was a loyal protector against door-to-door solicitors and bad cats who sometimes made life difficult for our indoor-outdoor cat, Maggie (she would hear a catfight in the middle of the night, beg to be let out, bark and chase away the mean cat, and then walk beside Maggie and escort her safely home). Lucy loved running with me on the Greenway, where she also chased Emma on her bicycle, then trotted happily behind her when she caught up.

Lucy loved her food, especially carrots (“orange bone”), and could be annoyingly underfoot when we were cutting them up for salads. She could hear us from the other end of the house when we would open the silverware drawer as quietly as possible to retrieve the carrot peeler. We would peel the carrot slowly and—we thought—silently, but we would turn around and see a smiling dog, waiting patiently for her treat.

She adored us completely, and we loved her equally. Life will never be the same without our good black dog, but we are glad that she is at peace.

Kater Cheek, deer

Kater Cheek sent me today’s post about a long ago encounter that ends in ice cream.
Kater has also just published the first book in a new series. It’s called ALTERNATE SUSAN and it’s set in an alternate version of Tempe, Arizona.

It has two animals in it. One is a talking lizard, the other is a cat. Check it out!

The post:

When I was a kid, my family liked to go camping. More to the point, my father liked being in the woods and hiking, my mom liked not spending a lot of money on vacations, and the children liked being barefoot and feral in national parks.

One year, we went on a group camping trip with my aunt and her four children. I think in addition to the eight of us, there were several other children who were the children of friends, or cousins, or maybe strays picked up (I wasn’t quite sure). I think there were at least a dozen of us, between the ages of diaper and almost-too-cool-to-hang-out.

We were camping near the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and we’d seen the forest ranger talks about the abundant natural wildlife, but so far all anyone had seen were ground squirrels and the occasional hawk or bluejay. My aunt said she was sure there were deer around there. Perhaps in an effort to motivate the less-feral of my cousins, she promised to buy ice cream for whichever child was first to spot a deer.

The next day, I was digging in the dirt with a stick when I looked up and saw some of my cousins and siblings gathering and whispering in excited voices. I tried to figure out what they were looking at, but they all seemed to be looking at me. My cousins and siblings and the other kids had begun to clasp hands and form a huge ring with me in the middle. I asked my sister what was going on, and she shushed me, then gestured I should turn around.

Maybe it says something about our family dynamics that I assumed my sister was playing some well-orchestrated joke on me. If I were to turn around, someone would surely throw a mud pie in my face, or hit me with a water balloon.

Sure enough, a second later, an enormous bully hit me hard from behind, and I went sprawling, my head jarred and my palms skinned. All the kids dispersed. I picked myself up and cried, partly from the pain, but mostly from the injustice of it. I immediately went to my mom to report this abuse and demand that the bully be found and punished.

My mom went to the kids to find out who had pushed me down. Their story would have been unbelievable if it hadn’t been corroborated by all the rest of the children. They had spotted a deer. It had been behind me the whole time. They formed a circle to keep the deer penned in, but it knocked me down and ran away. I accused them of lying, that a kid knocked me down, but their story didn’t change.

My aunt couldn’t judge which kid had seen the deer first, so she said they all got ice cream. The most important part of the story is that I got ice cream too, because being knocked over by a deer was judged close enough.

Lewis Shiner, squirrels, owls

Today’s post is part of an email (used with permission) that Lew sent to me in response to my recent book. Lew is an old and cherished friend as well as being a great, great writer. His most recent novel, Dark Tangos, deals with Argentina and some of its more terrible histories. He writes:

We have squirrels on our back deck whom we feed (we buy dried corn on the cob and put it on little squirrel feeders–okay, we haven’t done it in a while, but we have done it and will again), and who share the bird seed we put out. One day I was standing in the kitchen, watching a squirrel sitting on the deck railing, when an owl swooped down and took him. I was maybe ten feet away. I could see the squirrel’s face as the owl flapped upward, still alive, her talons buried deep in his neck, the awful resignation.

How do I reconcile my love of owls with my love of squirrels? How do I reconcile the love I feel for the generations of doves we have watched hatch and grow up and fly away on our front porch (we have two nests in the eaves that are regularly used–there are two week-old babies out there right now) with the knowledge that our cats, whom we love, would torture and kill those babies without hesitation if they could get their claws on them?

Elias Lindert, coyotes

A few years ago, Elias Lindert was one of my students in a workshop at UC Santa Cruz. He has covered a lot of miles since then, living first in Asia and then in South America, and is about to take off again. He is an extraordinarily talented writer for whom I have high hopes. He sent me, at my request, the following:


When I was thirteen my father gave me two things: a dog and a gun. The gun was a.22 caliber Browning pistol, with which I plinked away at empty cans and rotted tree stumps in the infinite backyard of ours that was the northwoods of Wisconsin. The dog was a black lab and pit bull mix that we named Layla. My father had found her as a puppy curled up in the snow of a parking lot while driving home from California, where we would soon move. But for the time being, we lived in northern Wisconsin, thirty minutes from the nearest town when our road wasn’t snow, slush, or mud, as it was for most of the year.

The coyotes had been a constant presence for the many years we’d lived there, their howling and yapping echoing across our lake, reaching a frenzied pace whenever they made a kill. Alternately beautiful and bloodcurdling, they were just another sound of the wilderness, always safely in the distance. It was not until the warm summer months of our final year in Wisconsin that they began to close in on us.

Each day the noises of the pack sounded a little closer and started a little earlier. Layla, whom we usually let roam our property freely, was dismayed when we began keeping her inside during the twilight hours and, as the coyotes drew nearer yet, in the afternoon as well. When she heard them bark and howl her fur would stand on end and she would run to the door, her tail wagging even as she growled, perhaps unsure if she wanted to fight or play with these strange canines who sounded as though they were right outside of our house.

One afternoon I was home alone when the coyotes started up. I hardly paid them any mind, since this was by now a daily occurrence, until I heard the unmistakable sound of Layla’s barking among that of the coyotes: I’d forgotten to bring her in. I ran to the window and called her, but the manic din overpowered my voice. I dashed into the closet where we kept our guns and grabbed my .22 before running outside and into the forest, in the direction of the frenzy, screaming Layla’s name while bloody scenarios raced through my mind.

Branches whipped my face as I ran through the thick woods toward the yowling cacophony, still calling for Layla, a bullet in the chamber of my .22 and the safety off, when a dark shape came barreling out of the underbrush toward me. It was Layla. Her tail was wagging and she was panting happily. I flicked the safety on the gun and knelt down to hug her, trying to inspect her for wounds while she licked my face, but there were none visible, not even a drop of blood. Then I looked up, and through the foliage, not twenty yards away, I saw a lone coyote; it was watching us.

I told Layla to heel and crept toward the coyote. It did not move. Layla too was eyeing it intensely, but she obeyed and stayed at my side. It was small, perhaps not fully grown. I wondered where the rest of the pack was. I scanned the woods around us, but they were gone and it was silent but for Layla’s heavy panting and the buzz of mosquitoes. When we were less than ten yards from the coyote it turned and began to trot away. I thought that would be that, but then it stopped again at about the same distance as it had before, and we continued to follow. This pattern kept repeating itself, the coyote scampering ahead, then pausing to let us catch up, leading us ever deeper into the forest. The sun was setting, and as the woods grew darker around us, I began to have paranoid fantasies. What if the coyote was leading us into a trap? What if the entire pack were to leap out from hiding and devour Layla and me alive? But it seemed content simply to observe us silently, staring at us just as we stared at it.

We continued following the coyote until dusk, when I realized we needed to turn back or risk getting lost in the woods, as I had no flashlight and we had by this point entered the sprawling national forest that bordered our property. Before turning around, Layla and I stood watching the coyote for one more minute. In my memory I am close enough to see the green-brown irises of its eyes. It is a devious predator, the devourer of pets, the trickster of legend. It is a playful, curious little creature not far removed from the dog who curled her little body into a ball in my lap when my father brought her in from the cold.

Roy DeGregory, dogs, rabbits

Roy DeGregory and I went to high school together, but it was a large high school and we only met many years afterwards. Still, by now we have known each other long enough to be old friends. Roy writes:

I have had many run-ins with dogs, especially as a telephone company repair person, and once a cat trained me to fill his food bowl and open the door on command ( a series of gestures, really) but that seems pretty mundane.
The dog story goes like this. I was thinking of hopping over a short chain link fence to enter a yard with a telephone pole in it that I needed to work on. There was an angry, snarling, spitting dog in the yard, and he made it quite clear that 1.) he knew what I was thinking, and 2.) he didn’t like it. Finely honed instincts caused me to decide to drive around the block and try getting to the pole from the other street, but then another dog appeared. He came right up to the fence where I stood, tail wagging, and stood with paws on the top bar to let me pet his big head. I did, and then before I could turn around and go back to my truck, he did something interesting–he began barking at the angry dog and then made him back away, in other words, he herded him back through the yard to the far corner, where he stood and blocked and checked his every move, trapping him there. Then he turned his head and looked at me and wagged his tail.
I figured I was being given safe passage, so I hopped over the fence and went to the pole and climbed it, unimpeded by the angry dog, who was still trapped in the corner. They both came to the pole to watch me, eventually, the good dog wagging his tail, the angry dog barking and snarling, but when I started down the pole, my new friend again herded his yard-mate over to the corner, and I descended and crossed through their territory again. The good dog came over and stood again by the fence so I could scritch him between his ears, and I left, sure that I could not ever repay him, and all the more impressed with his nobility because he probably knew that.
But those are just stories of animals, being like humans, that belie the underlying assumption of superiority that colors most of our encounters with animals. The real story is very tame and anti-climactic, but something that sticks in my mind. We live in an old, old suburb of Kansas City. Our streets were put in 60 years ago, and we live under a canopy of enormous oak trees. While walking along in the shaded tunnel on my evening walks, I would watch squirrels tearing back and forth and spiraling their way up tree trunks, see birds sailing through the halls of air above me, and of course the occasional rabbit dining on someone’s imperfect lawn. One day I saw one such rabbit sitting very close to the sidewalk, nibbling on some sort of clover, probably. I chose to hold my course and let him decide how best to make himself feel safe. As I walked by, within just a few feet, he kept on nibbling the clover and making no move to run off. I passed him completely and never interrupted a single bite. It made me realize what forest dwellers we really are–I was on a human trail, and the hungry rabbit had no real reason to flee. I was his encounter, I suppose, if he had a blog, and it made me feel in a quiet but profound way like I belonged.

Richard Kirschman, llama

Today's wonderful post comes via Richard Kirschman of Point Reyes, 
      Richard modestly wishes to be known only as a llama llover.


Here's a story I wrote that you might enjoy. It's about our llama  

I've never been on the receiving end of an animal's resentment before,  
and I can assure you it's quite disconcerting. I hesitate to attribute  
human emotions to animals, but there seems no other way to explain our  
llama's change in attitude directly following a recent incident.

Quentin is a 17 year-old gelding who has been with me and my wife,  
Doris, since he was 2. Originally, we bought him to protect our small  
herd of sheep and goats. Except for a short period of confinement  
following a mountain lion attack many years ago, all our animals have  
enjoyed unrestricted access to our acreage of forest and lush  
meadowland. We liked to think of them living free in a huge salad.

A few years ago, we stopped breeding sheep and goats, and eventually  
all our animals died of old age. Not counting the deer that regularly  
graze alongside Quentin, our llama was now all alone. Every morning we  
found him somewhere on the property and gave him his daily medicine  
hidden in a banana, along with other treats. In the evening he found  
us for his ration of alfalfa pellets. Overall, things seemed fine. But  
two veterinarians and Quentin's breeder counseled against keeping a  
herd animal alone. "It's cruel," they all agreed. "He needs companions."

And so we bought two adorable 4-week-old lambs for Quentin. We knew  
that he was fond of young animals, as evidenced by an old photograph  
of him with one of our goats, Juanita. As a kid, she used to ride on  
Quentin's back and he would carry her under oak trees so she could  
reach the leaves. A pair of baby lambs seemed a perfect idea.

Not to Quentin.

No sooner did our llama hear the plaintive baaing of the two barely  
weaned lambs than he bolted for the open gate to our property,  
something he has never done before. If Doris hadn't reached the gate  
and closed it in time, Quentin would have been passing traffic on the  
highway and speeding toward the national park.

 From that moment on, he wouldn't look at us or eat from our hands. He  
ignored our calls, backed away from his beloved back scratches and  
slept in the woods, far away from his usual bed near the house. When  
we tried to approach him, he bared his teeth, flared his nostrils and  
made a mournful, pitiful cry of distress. In Quentin's eyes, my wife  
and I had become chopped liver.

We could only guess that bringing other animals into the family had so  
upset him, he had no desire to associate with those who had betrayed  
him. It felt like anger. Not the spitting and kicking kind of physical  
anger, but the emotional kind.

After 48 hours, we returned the lambs to their likely destiny as lamb  
chops and began the slow process of regaining Quentin's trust and  
confidence. Time - in this case eight days - heals even llama pain.

Peggy Townsend, steer

When Peggy Townsend offered me this post, she said she guessed I would have no other entries about steer. So far she is on the money with that.  Peggy is an award-winning journalist who added “novelist” to her resume when her marvelous first book, Safe Landings, came out in 2012.




I stood beside Irving with the needle in my hand. My fingers trembled. I didn’t want Irving to die.

Irving was my then-500-pound Hereford steer and he was as close to a best friend as I had. I’d met him when he was six months old and I was 13. We both had spindly legs and an awkward gait but it wasn’t long before Irving blossomed into a handsome, muscular steer. I, on the other hand, stayed skinny and ungainly. Some of the girls at school called me “grasshopper.” It wasn’t too far off the mark.

But now, Irving’s handsome head was drooping and he had a hot, horrible cough. Old Mr. Beard, who owned the dairy down the road, had come over as a favor to my family and listened to Irving’s chest.

“Ah-yep,” he said, “he’ll need something for that. He’ll die if you aren’t careful.” He’d seen too much to sugarcoat the truth. My stomach gave a Richter-scale lurch.

From a toolbox, Mr. Beard selected a thick needle, a plastic syringe, a brown bottle. He drew a syringe full of medicine from the bottle, gave Irving’s neck area a couple of sharp slaps, then slammed in the needle on the third blow. Irving jumped and skittered sideways. Old Mr. Beard stepped aside and waited. When Irving had calmed, Mr. Beard fitted the syringe to the needle and pushed the plunger.

“There you go,” he said and handed me the accouterments. Mr. Beard had 200 head of Holsteins to look after. I was supposed to give Irving another shot on each of the next two days.

I felt sick at the thought of Irving dying. Over the past months, I’d poured my heart out to him about the mean girls at my school, about the fact I barely had breasts, about my parents ordering me to chop off my long hair. I’d press my face into his warm bulk and sob at my miserable life. He’d turn and blown soft alfalfa breaths against my arm.

The next day, I stood beside Irving, the needle in my hand and the medicine-filled syringe resting on top of a post in his pen. My father was nearby but being a 4-Her meant I supposed to learn to be a rancher. I thought I might throw up.

I took the needle and gave Irving two slaps but when it came time to slam in the sharp sliver of metal, I couldn’t do it. What if I accidentally stabbed the needle into an artery and Irving bled to death? What if it broke inside him? What if Irving hated me? I was always an imaginative kid and now my mind was at full gallop.

I thought of Irving lying dead in the pasture and tried the needle again. This time, it bounced off Irving’s thick hide and fell into the straw. Tears blurred my eyes but I found the needle and tried again, then again. Each time, the needle ricocheted off Irving like he was made of granite.

I called for my father. He told me to do what needed to be done.

By now I was desperate and sobbing.

Only later, when I became a mom, would I realize why I was crying. That the side effect of loving something is bearing a gut-wrenching responsibility for it. That it is a burden that is beautiful and passionate and frightening. Back then, I could only feel the scary part.

I looked at my father through my gulps and hiccups, and turned to Irving. I gave him two great slaps and, with a sob so huge it nearly ripped my scrawny chest open, I plunged the needle home

I wiped my eyes and fixed the syringe to the needle. Then I pushed the plunger and filled Irving full of love.