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Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

More on Mexico and Animals

I live in inner Portland, Oregon, in a beautiful older neighborhood with maple and chestnut trees arching across the streets. When I walk, often alone at night, I encounter neighbors walking their dogs on leashes. Cats come up to me to complain that their humans never, ever pet them and that they need a little head rub right now. I see a loose dog perhaps once a year, a guilty-looking escapee. Some of the dogs get to romp at a dog park with other dogs. The rare un-neutered male dog is always a purebred. People argue whether duck-and-potato dog food is better than lamb-and-rice.

Mexico pops my rosy little bubble, as did Cambodia and Thailand. The Mexican neighborhood where my father-in-law lived is on the periphery of the middle-class city of San Miguel de Allende. Only recently have some of the streets been paved. Little brick houses with corrugated metal roofs nestle up to beautiful haciendas built by foreigners. Street dogs run loose, except for the few that are still kept as "roof dogs", stranded on the roof to bark at intruders. If cats live here, they are invisible.

The street dogs are un-neutered, dirty, and sometimes injured. Some are wary of people. They are also alert and busy, interacting with each other, playing, arguing, mating, searching for food, roaming free. I suspect they lead the very same life that dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. It's impossible to imagine them as child-substitutes or adornments or status symbols. They are Dogs, capital D. For the most part, they don't even seem to be companions to people. They have all that freedom, but none of the care that I and my neighbors consider essential to a dog's well being. They probably don't live very long.

No burros on this trip, no dawn serenade of hee-haws, and only a few distant roosters to fill the gap. A filly grazed while tied to a tree down the street, a long-horned cow roamed at the upper end. During the Monday market that lines both sides of the street, a woman sold used clothing and wild birds. The top two looked like house finches. I couldn't identify the one on the bottom.

This Mexican neighborhood is being gentrified and beautified. Eventually, when the recession passes, the rest of the streets will be paved and construction of nice little houses and big gorgeous mansions will begin again. The street market may or may not endure, but the livestock will probably move on. If I return in a few years, perhaps the street dogs will be gone and I'll see only dogs on leashes. But no matter the how much the neighborhood upgrades, I doubt people will be prepared to discuss the merits of duck-and-potato dog food.

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Mexican circus

My husband and I were touristing diligently in downtown San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, shopping for trinkets in one of the many lovely little stores, when he said, "Ann, there's a zebra outside." After more than a second or two for me to parse this, I realized I should actually take a look. And there it was. The circus had come to town.

Advertising the performance, truck after truck loaded with animals navigated the narrow streets, loudspeaker blaring. This seemed to be a fairly large circus with a lot of animals. I trotted after and took these photos. My husband saw more than I did and said they had many big cats. He took this photo as the trucks moved on.

Later I mentioned the parade to an American friend who lives in SMA, as we in the know call it. (I can pretend I'm in the know!) She said that "Mexican circuses are rough. I wouldn't go if I were you." I had no intention of going, no interest in supporting this business. That is all I can report on the performance.

We encountered the circus again later, on the way back from the wonderful Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden. The tent was set up and the animals were unloaded. I can only say that they were not thin and they had fresh hay and no visible injuries. I did not see the cats close up. I was very surprised to see four young giraffes. As far as I know, the collection did not include any elephants.

San Miguel is a small and somewhat isolated town. There's not a lot for young people to do there. No doubt the circus will be popular.

My guess is that those animals would be happy to trade life in a zoo for this one of constant travel and whatever performances are required of them. If you have the stomach for it, read the first part of A Different Nature by David Hancocks for horrific descriptions of human exploitation of animals for entertainment. The ancient Romans locally exterminated many African species for wholesale slaughter in the coliseums. Put me off my feed for a week. We limp slowly toward a more respectful relationship with our fellow species, with many detours.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Adios, Mexico

I returned a few weeks ago from a week in Mexico, in the determinedly historic town of San Miguel de Allende. Ever alert to the ways people interact with animals, I found several striking examples, among them the local street dogs, a circus, and a street vendor selling wild birds. We stumbled on an Indian parade down the middle of town that I watched for close to an hour. Men and boys danced in costumes of leather, furs, horns, and feathers to drums. It seemed that the participants danced to celebrate their customs and history and wore costumes appropriate to that. Alas, I know nothing of which tribes were represented or how Native American cultures function in the area.

I've been reading Animal Investigators by Laurel A. Neme about identifying illegal wildlife parts. Here is an example of the National Fish & Wildlife's beautiful site used to identify feathers. So as I watched the parade, I was especially interested in the feathered headdresses.

Reading a single book, sadly, does not make one an expert on identifying the birds from which the feathers came, and feathers are often dyed and shaped for effect. So I won't attempt that. The costumes were constructed with great care and no little artistry. The headdresses were striking and beautiful. I will say, however, that I was startled to see an entire stuffed owl, possibly a screech owl, on a headdress. And of course I wondered if endangered parrots were the source of any of the brighter headgear.

I'm not going to sermonize about killing birds for feathers to adorn themselves. Mexico has its own laws, and indigenous people have their own customs and, in some cases, special rights. Decorating with feathers is a custom, tradition, and pleasure that has existed at least as long as humanity. Readers of this blog should know where I stand on exploiting wildlife populations and I'll leave it at that. More on the circus later.

I'm interested in hearing from people who know something about these tribes and their cultures, as well as from any feather experts who would like to chime in.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

On Thursday, October 15, bloggers all over the world are writing about climate change and its affect on different parts of our lives--food, politics, art, and so on. No surprise, I will write a bit about the consequences for wildlife and their habitat. I am in Mexico at the moment, working on a steam-powered computer and a vintage browser, so please forgive my lack of links to references.

I've heard debates about global warming for what? ten years?, but all the doubts that it was happening never made sense to me. I read Natural History magazine and other bits and pieces of science news. The botanists have known for quite a long time that the climate is changing. Spring comes earlier in the northern hemisphere--the plants wake up sooner. The birders and ornithologists knew it also--migratory birds return earlier. So it is not news to anyone paying attention that the natural world is changing rapidly due to climate change. Today, the die-hards either say it's natural and not our fault, or else that we can't do anything about it. Neither is true. How can we radically alter the gas ratios in the Earth's atmosphere and not expect consequences? And if we can make these changes, surely we can unmake them.

Here's a few examples of what a hotter world looks like. Trees are dying in western forests from multiple causes, among them hotter summers with less water. My guess is that different species of trees or shrubs will take their place. The birds, insects, reptiles, mammals, etc. will change accordingly. The flexible ones will remain (raccoons, deer) and the ones that are finely attuned to one ecosystem will perish or (optimistically) follow it to new locations. Glaciers are melting faster than they are being replaced. The western US, mostly arid to begin with, will become drier in summer as the streams and springs fail from lack of snowmelt. Lack of snow cover in the winter will affect many species of plants. They are vulnerable to freezing and dehydration when the ground they are dormant beneath is bare.

Enough of the bad news. The point is not to sink into depression, but to be further spurred to action. For the sake of the birds at your feeder, the deer you see on your camping trip, the frog your kid caught on the farm, start doing what you can. You know the drill: drive less, buy less, eat locally grown food, and, most especially, let your senator, representative, mayor, state senator, governor, etc., know that this is a top priority for you. Put their phone numbers into your cell phone or post them next to the land line and start calling.

Tell them you know it's going to cost extra to fix this and you are willing to pay more for utilities that use green power, for public transportation, for investments that reduce use of coal and oil. Tell them that, yes, you get it, reducing our carbon footprint is going to be hard on the economy. Tell them to do it anyway. What do you think our economy is going to look like if we don't get a handle on this?

Do what you can. That's all any of us can do. Each day or week or month, try to add one more change to your life, one more email or phone call, one more adjustment that helps reduce your impact. That's what we gotta to do. And then look up from the bad news and enjoy the wonderful world we inherited.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A lion placeholder

I won't be available to blog for a week, so here is a fine picture of a lion taken by my sister, Nancy Parker, to assuage my conscience. He lives at the National Zoo.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Today's quote

Stumbled across this old favorite while (whilst?) looking for something else.

"Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself to do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done whether you like it or not. It is the first lesson that ought to be learned and however early a person's training begins, it is probably the last lesson a person learns thoroughly."

Thomas Huxley

Friday, October 2, 2009

Visit to Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Here's a few photos from Woodland Park Zoo. Nice visit during the AAZK conference. Makes me realize again how tricky it is to design an exhibit for photography.

This exhibit works for the camera! Looks like I stumbled on that bear in the Olympics.

Shot the jag through thick glass, which worked pretty well. I suspect a heater under those rocks.

Barred owl. Perfect conditions--no bars or mesh, no glass, up close. Now I have no excuses for my mediocre photography!