Thursday, May 29, 2008

Compost Condo

Garden Path Japanese Maple
I like my compost bin. I'm amazed by the magic that turns garden clippings and vegetable scraps into rich compost. But a few years ago, things didn't go according to plan.

It was early summer, and each time I removed the lid of the bin, the mound of compost moved ever so slightly. It was like a tiny earthquake that immediately settled. By mid-summer, I heard them, and soon after, saw them. A mouse and her babies had set up house in my bin. I couldn't blame them -- the compost provided food (replenished almost daily), warmth, safety, and a great view of the garden (pictured). Knowing the mice were there, I was afraid to tun the compost with a fork or shovel, fearing I'd injure one of them. I left the door at the bottom of the bin open about an inch, but they seemed to use it only for quick day trips, never taking the hint that I'd served them an eviction notice.

I decided to bodily remove the mice on Labour Day weekend because when I opened the lid, five well-fed mice jumped madly on top of the pile of compost. Perhaps the heap had become too hot, or their tunnels had collapsed and they were unable to escape. Whatever the problem, they appeared to be going nuts.

I grabbed my daughter's flimsy, dollar store butterfly net, and a bucket with a lid. Drawing a deep breath, I scooped the critters out of the bin, one at a time. I was successful in getting four of them into the bucket, but the fifth jumped out and ran into my neighbour's backyard (I hope they don't read this blog). With a parade of kids following me, I carried the bucket into the forest across the street, and deposited the mice deep in a grove of trees. I didn't have much hope for their continued survival -- after all, they'd never had to forage for a meal in the short lives.

Last year, a mole set up home in the compost bin. I spotted his funny, little nose poking out from a tunnel near the bottom of the bin. I don't think he stayed long because I never saw him again. I do have a lot of worms in my bin. When it rains, they all congregate under the rim of the lid, and I'm always afraid that I'll squish them if I put the lid back on. I don't like touching worms, so using a twig, I gingerly place them back into the bin. Although now that I think about it, they may be trying to escape, and I've just thrown them back into their compost jail.

Ah, wildlife. Yes, I have rabbits and birds visiting my yard regularly, but it's really the compost bin where all the action takes place.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lions and Tigers and Bears ... Okay, just one tiger

Siberian Tiger Cub

In 2001, my daughter and I were driving home through our neighbourhood when we spotted this orange, white and black ball of fluff on the sidewalk. I couldn't believe our luck -- a Siberian tiger cub, and we weren't even at the zoo! Most importantly, we got to pet him (and you can tell by my smile that I'm absolutely thrilled):

Siberian Tiger Cub
(Excuse the photo glare and that perm!)

The man walking the cub told us he'd brought it home from the wildlife sanctuary where he volunteered because there was no one there to care for it that weekend. The tiger will have grown up by now, and I don't imagine he'd let me rub his stomach. Shame.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hot Dogs

Summertime -- warm weather, misguided folks and steamy cars. This is a repeat of my very first post on this blog, I hope you don't mind, but I think it's important to remind people about the danger.

Dear owner: Please leave me at home. It gets really, really hot in the car. I don’t like it. Love, your loyal pet.

Does this look familiar? I hope not. If you’ve been the recipient of such a note, then you’re guilty of inflicting a cruelty no animal should be forced to suffer—being left in a parked car on a warm day.

Yes, I’m willing to admit that I am the local pet protector who secretly slides these notes under your windshield wiper. As you may have noticed, I always make sure that the writing faces the inside of the vehicle. That way, it can be easily read when you finally do return to your pet.

I am the person who advised the cashier at Chapters that you had left your headlights on. It was the tiniest of lies. I’d hoped that, after hearing the announcement, you would rush out, read my note, feel the appropriate amount of shame and vow never to leave your dog in the car again. Just to let you know, I waited 15 minutes before you returned. What were you thinking?

Many errant pet owners may claim they’re only making a quick dash into the grocery store. But you know how it is; a list of three items can soon turn into a cart full of food. The line-ups can seem excruciatingly long to the animal you’ve left in the stifling heat.

Just recently, I happened upon a policeman standing helplessly beside a parked car. A dog, its tongue dangling over its lower jaw, paced along the back seat. Interested bystanders lingered in front of the stores. The cop mumbled into his radio. Was he getting permission to break the window and rescue the animal? I sat in my own car (windows cranked open) and waited.

The sound of smashing glass was not to be. Instead, a harried woman, with two young children tugging on her arm, approached the car. At that moment, I envisioned her back at home, rounding up the kids, searching for her purse and shopping list before heading, breathless, out the door. The kids may have begged to bring Fido along with them. Overworked and tired, she gave in.

The cop spoke to her, the crowd dispersed, and I started my car and pulled away. I had mixed feelings about that particular episode. I could empathize with the woman but the fact remained—the dog could have died.

Even with the windows partially open, the temperature inside a car can reach 49 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) within minutes. I often hear warnings on the radio and television advising pet owners about the dangers. And, still, people continue to invite their beloved canine friends along for the ride.

Last summer, unprepared, I would scribble my notes on any available scrap of paper—a bank receipt or a Starbucks serviette. This year, when the warm weather began to poke its way through the winter’s chill, I knew it was time to pull my pet protector cloak from the closet. Anticipating a rash of owners not heeding the media warnings, I’ve printed off 20 copies of the note (it’s true, this is becoming a bit of an obsession). I’ll stash the notes in my glove compartment and, hopefully, there will be some remaining when the weather eventually begins to cool.

No one’s ever caught me playing the crusader to these four-legged victims. I’m very careful. With the ease of a seasoned stalker, I stroll toward my target and, in a fluid motion, whisk the piece of paper into place. Seldom do the animals, usually dogs, make any kind of fuss. The odd time, I see the owners discover my note. It’s interesting to observe their suspicious and, sometimes, angry glances around the parking lot.

I’m not brave enough for a confrontation with the dog’s owner; I know how defensive I would get if someone questioned my ability to care for my pet. Most people love and treat their pets as an important member of the family. It’s understandable that, in a moment of weakness, owners give in to the pleading in their dog’s eyes as they pick up the car keys. This is one time that owners must say no. The animal will be much happier and safer in the home.

I will continue to protect the furry citizens in my town. I encourage everyone to be on the lookout for those black noses pressed through a sliver of open window, trying to catch a whisper of fresh air. Print your own notes (I always try to be as polite as possible). Make a difference. Save a life.

My essay, Pet Protector to the Rescue, first appeared in the Globe and Mail in July 2003.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Furry and Feathered Moms

Mothers in the animal kingdom are so under-appreciated -- they probably never get a Mother's Day card. So let's salute the hardworking furry and feathered moms of the world.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Bird with Almost Nine Lives

Let's go back to when I was about thirteen years old. It is, unfortunately, a bit of a journey, but I think we can make it ...

Snow bent branches toward the ground, and even more swirled at our feet as my girlfriend and I made our way home one evening. Up ahead, I saw a bit of colour, and upon closer inspection, discovered a green-feathered budgie. I'd like to say I was wise enough to put the bird under my coat and take it home, but, apparently, I wasn't. I picked him up and stuck him in a bush. Then I went home and told my parents. They were probably appalled for they sent me back out of to retrieve the shivering budgie.

I raced back up the street, afraid the bird had found shelter elsewhere or, worse, died. But there he was, exactly where I'd left him (his feet probably frozen to branch). I cupped him in my mittened hands, and brought him home. Placing the bird on the floor, we watched as he walked up and down the hall, scratching and fluffing his feathers. We called him "Itchy" (I suppose we could have called him Fluffy, but that didn't seem appropriate). We retrieved an old bird cage from the basement, fitted it out as best we could, then introduced Itchy to his new home.

That was Life Number One.

Itchy became a great source of entertainment. Of course, this was in the days when there was only 13 channels on the television, and Monopoly was the game of choice. If we placed a spoon or quarter on the counter, Itchy picked it up and tossed it over the side, angling his head to the side to better hear it's ringing tones as it hit the floor. He loved to shower under warm, running water between the two sinks in the kitchen. And I shudder to think of it now, but I let him eat Kraft dinner from the side of my plate. He was a fully-fledged member of the family.

We never did buy him a new cage as the old one worked just fine, except for the door -- it had to be held open with a twist tie. Each morning, the cage was opened, and Itchy was free to roam the house while we were at home. I recently asked my mom if there was bird poop all over, but she can't recall, and neither can I. When we went downstairs to watch television, we carried the cage and Itchy down with us. One night, I noticed Itchy struggling at the cage door -- the twist tie had pierced his neck. Blood splattered, I screamed, and my dad hurdled over the coffee table, saving Itchy from a most horrifying demise.

That was Life Number Two.

One of Itchy's favourite warm weather perches was the screen door at the front of our house. Gripping the metal frame at the top of lower window, he'd watch the world go by. It must have been a Saturday -- that was chore day -- and my mom decided to clean the window of the screen door. To do so, she had to first lift out the lower window. It's difficult to explain, but suffice to say, Itchy lost a toe (claw?) that day. My poor mom felt so bad, but the injury didn't slow our bird down a bit.

That was Life Number Three.

Unfortunately, Itchy didn't survive his fourth life. Six years after that snowstorm, he died in a freak accident (of course). We missed him terribly, but continued to marvel at his determination and intelligence.