Hannah Stein, elephants

The great poet Hannah Stein has sent me a poem!



We dream jungle, we dream veld.  Where
elephants go to die:  bare ground
fenced between calligraphied giraffes
and the tender-eyed okapi.  An elephant

lies in state: a kind of earthen wake for
the living, who lumber in needful ritual,
knowledge flickering in their silent feet,
their arcane, undomesticated bones.
They grieve in a dusty oval,
touch their comrade again and again,

to make sure he is dead, to lay
their peace upon him, gather his peace
unto themselves.  Hour upon hour
they circle him and touch him,
the friable ground wreathing up all

that can shade eternity back to them,
whatever more than dust
may spread safekeeping.
—Hannah Stein


(First published in And We The Creatures, C.J. Sage, editor)

Tegan Moore, gerbils

Tegan Moore lets me know she has been thinking a lot about gerbils lately.  Read this wonderful post and you will be thinking about them, too.



“And what’s your gerbil’s name?” asked the receptionist.

“Starsong the Unicorn,” I said. “She’s not my gerbil. She’s a work gerbil.”

“Sorry,” the receptionist said, her brows hugged together. “I don’t know what that means.”

“Right. We just have a couple of gerbils at work. They don’t really belong to anyone. They’re all of ours, I guess.” I paused. She was writing something on the entry form. “The person who normally takes care of them is out of town, and she asked me to check on them today, and of course…”

She looked up, her sympathy well-practiced. “We’ll make Starsong comfortable and the doctor will call you once she’s done the exam.”

The bill for this yet-unaccomplished exam was $75. I left Starsong the Unicorn the gerbil and drove back to the office, unable to pinpoint my emotions.


When I was five we had two gerbils in a big tank in our basement. The were disappointingly named, though I can’t remember the names themselves, and one was brown and one was black and they were very cute and fond of each other. I wasn’t supposed to take them out of their tank unsupervised because of a previous hour-long gerbil manhunt, but rules about animals were the easiest ones to ignore.

The husband-gerbil, the black one, was my favorite, and I was only playing with him on the old couch for a few moments before he escaped me and scurried beneath it. He easily evaded my short arms, and no amount of waiting (ten seconds? Twenty?) convinced him that I was gone and the coast was clear. The last thing I wanted was to solicit adult help, because that would just prove that the rule I’d broken was there for a reason.

Maybe I could lure him out. The gerbil-kibble proved ineffective, and any interesting snacks were all the way upstairs, in the kitchen with my mom and her questions, and if I actually left the room the gerbil might slip out from under the couch and go truly missing.

The only other thing I had that the husband-gerbil might want was his wife.

I climbed onto the couch with her, so he couldn’t see my feet, and held her by her tail. He could see her, but not me, but I also couldn’t see him to tell if it was working. I gave the wife-gerbil a little alluring shake.

Her tail came off. About halfway down. It tore right in half. The wife-gerbil hit the cement floor and her husband came out to meet her. They both stood, wide-eyed, waiting for me. I put them back in their tank.

I hid the half of the tail, the little wormy bit of rope, in a pile of lumber in the storage room. I don’t remember anyone every saying anything about it, though someone must have noticed. They must have.


Starsong’s exam revealed a mass in her abdomen: a tumor, possibly, or an enlarged organ. She would need tests to determine what to do next.

“They want to do diagnostics,” I told my coworker over the phone. “It could be cancer or diabetes or even pneumonia. The X-rays are a hundred-fifty, and that’s not even treatment.” I paused. “Do you want to do it?”

We do all kinds of backbends and contortions around the mortality of pets.

If she’s in pain…

She wouldn’t understand that what they were doing was supposed to help.

And there’s no guarantee she’ll recover.

She’s already pretty old. I think we need to just let her go.

She lived a good life, as though that’s justification for cutting it short. If anything, She was happy should make death all the more tragic.

It’s not that any of these thoughts are wrong, that they’re lies we say to make what we do okay. But when it comes to animals, especially little things like gerbils, we have such complete power. We get to decide how and even if they live. Nobody’s fighting for them. It becomes painfully clear: when the pauses in the conversations where the defenses might go remain unfilled, when both people are holding their breath hoping that the other one doesn’t say, “let’s do this, let’s get the quote for gerbil chemo.” Because nobody really wants to do that. It’s just a gerbil.


If there’s any animal whose suffering and death I should be hardened toward it’s domestic rodents. Obsessed with farming as a child, I bred, raised and sold hamsters. At one point there were fifty-two of them, a number I was intensely proud of. I thought of them as stock animals, but small and disposable enough that if one or two died nobody noticed besides me.

The summer was an explosion of hamster babies, the now-murderous fathers removed to improvised cages and tanks. The mothers were hardly any less bloodthirsty. Hamsters eat their young at the slightest provocation, and being in the sole care of a ten-year-old with attention deficit disorder is a powerful stressor. Cannibalism was disappointing but common. The hamsters went, forgotten about, for days without water or food. They didn’t really get held or played with; my fantasy wasn’t about having animals to love (already had those), it was about volume. Raising stock. Farming can be merciless and mercenary, even when practiced by a child.

The hamsters wintered in our basement where they were even easier to ignore. One weekend, reminded by my mother and with guilt already heavy in my guts, I went down to check on them and found that one, an adult now, had escaped and fallen into her mother’s cage. Battle ensued, and, starving and stir-crazy, the mother ate the daughter. This was too much for me, even after all the infanticide I’d cleaned up after. I cried; I told my parents. My father emerged from his office to insist, solemnly, that once a hamster tastes blood, they’re done, set irrevocably on a downward slope towards sociopathy, mayhem and violence. He said this with a straight face, and fetched the shotgun he’d gotten for Christmas a few weeks earlier. It had never been shot at anything but hay bales. He brought the offending hamster—her name was Squeak, until now a peaceful animal and not even a frequent baby-eater—outside into the snow. I hid in the basement where I couldn’t hear the shot.

The hamster farm lost a lot of its appeal after that.


“Just come get us when you’re done saying goodbye,” said the vet tech, and I almost stopped him then. I didn’t need to say goodbye; this wasn’t my pet, it was just a gerbil. But I didn’t stop him.

Starsong was ragged, weak and breathing hard. She’d never been a cuddly personality but she was too tired to escape me now, and so I pet her soft head with my finger as she waddled in laborious circles on a towel. After a respectful few minutes, the tech came back with a syringe.

I remembered the process from my childhood dog: first a sedative, and then the killing dose. The needle seemed absurdly large for tiny Starsong, but she was too sick or too stoic to react. The tech left again for the few minutes the drug needed to take effect.

There’s not much difference between a sedated gerbil and a dead gerbil. After a moment I picked her up to see if I could still feel a pulse, or breathing. If there was anything, it was too faint to detect. She didn’t blink.

I thought, this is the first time she’s ever let me hold her.

She’s really pretty.

This is her last time. Her last moment. I’m holding the last minute of this animal’s entire existence.

Is she dead?

I could still change my mind.

The tech came back.

“I think she’s under,” I said. “She’s stopped moving.”

The tech gave me a tight-lipped smile as I handed Starsong over for the final drug. Was he judging me for not being more upset?

Probably not. He saw this sort of thing all the time.


We buried Starsong on the office patio in an iPhone 5 box. I could have had her cremated but that was another $45. It was the end of the day, and so afterward I washed the dirt off of my hands and went down to my car and thought, should I be sad?

I cried for a few seconds instead about my fourteen-year-old cat, who’s still in good health, and my husband, who is young and fit. It was just a couple of tears. I wanted this to matter. Life was all that Starsong had, and I took it from her because it was inconvenient not to, and because I felt bad for her, and because I could. It was the right choice, I think, but still: I took from that creature of her one possession. I took everything she had.

Me, cats again, more cats

I saw something when I was a girl that disturbed me greatly. I was in our front yard, on my way to a neighbor’s house, looking for a good time, a game of Rummy or Cootie or Uncle Wiggily. I stopped to wait for a car to pass. Meanwhile, across the street, a dog was chasing a cat. I hadn’t seen the dog before, but it was a beautiful white and brown Pointer. When I was a child, dog breeds for a hundred was my jeopardy category.


The chase was on, full speed, much barking, considerable commotion. The cat ran alongside the road for a minute or so. Then it turned, streaked my way, the dog close behind. The cat got faster. The car hit and killed the dog.


I went crying to my mother. When my father got home that night, I told him what I’d seen, my clear and terrible sense that the cat had planned it just the way it happened. He asked me why I thought that. The cat had run alongside the road first, I said, and only crossed when the car was close. The cat had stopped running the minute the car hit the dog. It had come into our yard, sat unconcernedly on our sidewalk, cleaning its face with its paw. It looked at me afterwards, I said. It gave me a look.


My case was not a strong one. Dad attacked at my weakest point: the look. A cat can look at a king. Doesn’t mean it knows he’s royalty.


My father and I had a long-running argument on the subject of animals and their brains. I grew up surrounded by cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, turtles, rats and a snake named Melpotamus Jones. I believed, based on my own observations, that some of these animals, the dogs and cats, at least, could think.


My father was a behavioral psychologist. (Another child might have realized that this was his area of expertise and she was just a six-year-old, seven-year-old, eight-year-old child, but that’s not the kind of child I was.) He believed animals acted in response to changes in their environment. Through conditioning and reinforcement, he believed animals could learn. But he did not believe they could think. Or at least he felt it was a hypothesis not proven, which was his way of not believing. He was always cautioning me against the sins of anthropomorphism.


But it now seems to me that the refusal to anthropomorphize is not the value-neutral stance that it appears to be. You can demand that something be proved or you can demand that it be disproved; either choice has implications.


Weeks later I saw that same cat behave in that same way. On this occasion, its timing was off – the car braked; the dog, a mix of various Terriers, made it safely across the street. They were both still running when I last saw them.


Extreme cold on the east coast. Extreme heat in Australia. Here in California we are seeing how bad news can come wrapped in one beautiful day after another. We drove to the wine country yesterday and saw the hills in all their parchedness. The plants are wondering whether to bloom or not to bloom. The butterflies are back or else a new group is arriving. This morning a hummingbird circled my head as if I were Snow White. Or Bugs Bunny post-punch in the face. There is confusion in the garden.

Me, Cats, Tunch in particular

I spent the morning thinking about cats.  Cats in general, cats in particular, my life as a series of cats.  In chronological order, here they are, my personal cats:  Whiskers, Pepper, Salt, Chimera, Max (short for Maximum Cat), and Ollie.  Also many kittens, who came into my life briefly and went when they were weaned and whose names I no longer remember.


When I was a girl in Bloomington, I remember witnessing the delivery of two of Pepper’s three litters.  The first time, she had two kittens, but only one of them was alive despite her desperate licking.  She had three, all fit and kicking, in her second litter, five in her third, and then my parents, who could see the trend, finally had her spayed – over my protests, I imagine, but do not remember.  I loved having kittens underfoot and we never had any trouble finding homes for them.  Perhaps taking in a cat seemed like less of a commitment then, when they all spent most of their time outdoors, entertaining themselves in nefarious cat ways.  Pepper often didn’t come home for days and she was always in fine fettle when she did return from her merry old time.


(I am a big proponent now of the spaying of cats, having watched from the front row as my friend Debbie, cat rescuer extraordinaire, all around cat hero, dealt year after year with the inexhaustible flood of kittens.)


Our house is catless at the moment, which means birds and squirrels are free to frolic at the feeder, which I like, though the neighborhood cats – one white, one black – are beginning to show up with some regularity.  My vegetable beds are apparently ideal as litter boxes (why are they called litter boxes when they are not for litters?) – so we are engaged in permanent, but friendly disputation concerning them.


But the cat most on my mind this morning never lived with us.  In fact, over the last several years, I’d grown attached to a cat I never met – Tunch, the guiding spirit, the enormous heart of the political blog Balloon Juice. www.balloon-juice.com


I was so deep in travel and book promotion last summer that I spent little time on the internet, which had its own rewards, all that time spent in the actual world, but caused enormous shock when I learned, long after the fact, that Tunch had died untimely.  He was, as John Cole continually reminded us, a very large, very fat cat, but he cast a truly gigantic shadow, reaching all the way to me here in California.  I woke up this morning and realized I was missing Tunch, which seems a very odd fact, one odd data point in the virtual world of my virtual cats.

Valerie Harms, extinction events

Author and editor Valerie Harms has allowed me to post here her wonderful introduction to her own book, Dreaming of Animals.  www.valerieharms.com

The Unity of Inner and Outer Nature

                       by Valerie Harms

I had a vision of a unified kingdom of animals when I journeyed to the Galapagos Islands, situated 500 miles or so from land in the Pacific Ocean.  The animals did not yet have the fear of humans that has become imprinted on animals in the rest of the world.  I rested next to a sleeping sea lion and stood within hand-shaking distance of penguins and boobies.  I swam amidst clouds of curious fish, who approached me first.

When I lay down next to the sea lion, she looked at me languorously.  Our skins were coated with sand.  We basked under an immense sky, gentle wind, with the persistent sound of frothing waves.  How did she view me?  I did not really know but for awhile at least we shared a moment of the gift of life.  I took in as much as I could the sheen of her coat, the graceful lines of her form, and her peace.

I knew that in the past these once barren volcanic islands, covered with hard lava, had been found by organisms (seeds, spiderlings) from water and the air and which, despite all challenges, over the eons adapted and formed colonies, native to each island.  The endemic cultures were the reason why the islands helped Charles Darwin make his famous observations about the evolution of species approximately 150 years ago.

I was also aware how these island ecosystems were destined for future change as our species plunder the fish and turtles, introduce rats and goats, and batter the coasts with tourist boats.

I had been motivated to write this book by similar threats to animals in the rest of the world.  As part of my research for this book I traveled to Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Bali, Spain, and Morocco, where I’d seen how the animals are treated now, as well as the stuffed ones only visible in museums.  In rainforests and near seashores I observed some of the wondrous species that inhabit this world.  Everywhere I went, wildlife are threatened, usually by people making insensitive economic decisions.

I hate and fear the threats of extinction to animals, because animals have been vital to us since we existed on this planet.  For no matter where we live – whether near desert, mountain, jungle, grassland, tundra, lake, or ocean, we dwell amidst a number of other species populations with invisible dynamic links that originated way before our ancestral family appeared millions of years ago. Our lives depend on the crucial functions animals fulfill for the Earth.  In breathing, animals produce and maintain oxygen and other gases in the atmosphere.  In eating, some maintain a balance of populations between predators and prey.  In defecating, they recycle nutrients and help produce fertile soil.  Burrowing, they churn and till the soil.  Some help regulate water supplies, some pollinate plants, disperse seeds, and decompose organic wastes.  (A large fraction of the U.S. food supply depends on native pollinators).  In breeding and evolving, animals broaden the gene pool, making possible more medicines, foods, and other resources essential to all living beings.  The larger the genetic diversity, the more possible options we have for the optimum survival on this biosphere.


Aldo Leopold, wolf

Despite protests, the Michigan wolf hunting season began on Friday.  Four wolves have been killed in the first two days.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949