Saturday, August 15, 2015

Life, Death, Yellowstone

Very much on my mind is the still-unfolding August 7 incident in Yellowstone National Park  in which a park contractor, Lance Crosby, moving through bear country apparently observing none of the standard precautions, was caught, killed, partly consumed, and his remains cached by a well-known, well-loved female grizzly bear known affectionately as “Blaze.” The moniker refers to a distinctive streak of light-colored of fur from spine to belly just behind her front legs. 

After Crosby’s mutilated body was found, Blaze and her two cubs, still in the vicinity,  were quickly culvert-trapped, and through DNA and other tests, confirmed unequivocally as having been the only bears at the scene of his demise.  With this incontrovertible evidence, Blaze was promptly "humanely removed," i.e., euthanized, per park policy. She will be necropsied, which will include meticulous analysis of the contents of her digestive system, and a detailed forensic report will be made public, when all that can be learned from her body has been.

Her still-young cubs are spending the rest of their lives at the Toledo Zoo. Deprived of a normal life at large in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, with all its attendant hazards and risks to long life and reproductive success, they will instead learn that humans are beneficent sources of a plentiful year-round diet (and they won’t undergo the annual metabolic stress of wintering), and they will be sheltered from predators, medicated as needed, mentally and physically stimulated, and contribute, however unknowingly, to the evolving science of captive wildlife husbandry. And above all, if the zoo does it right, they will serve to educate the public about Ursus arctos horribilis, which recent events amply demonstrate should be a very high priority. Many people have expressed disgust for this solution, but while rehabilitation to the wild – that in this case would mean raising them in captivity and guiding them the best humans can in the art of “being bear” until they are sufficiently mature to be released in early summer 2017 -- was considered, apparently no capable facility has room for them.   

There has been enormous angry outcry about the park’s actions, as Blaze was one of those wild animals that had, over her 20 years, become habituated to the presence of human beings. She was observed and photographed by many, including people I know personally, and was an exceptionally beautiful and charming bear, no question. Every few years she bore a litter of adorable cubs, and demonstrated her prowess as a mother by the high survival rate of her fragile babies. People formed very strong emotional attachments to her as she allowed them insights into her wild life. Whether those insights were always correctly interpreted by those who loved and admired her is something worth questioning, but regardless, a large and vocal contingent believe that she should have been allowed to live.

I do not, but not because I haven’t formed my own attachments to similar bears, like 399 in Grand Teton National Park, but because in reality, other options for a preventing a 20 year old wild bear from repeating this behavior were non-existent. Relocating her with her cubs to an environment far from human habitation – say, the North Woods of Canada – would have been the second best ideal to leaving them free in Yellowstone, but bears are notorious for making their way back to their home territory even from a thousand miles distant. What’s more, inadvertent release in territory already claimed by other grizzlies would have resulted in their deaths. Confining her in a zoo or sanctuary would have been a cruel prison sentence indeed, and possibly extraordinarily risky for those charged with her care. 

The rationale (among some if not many) for destroying a bear that has fed on a person because it develops a “taste” for human flesh, can never be documented.  But what IS undoubtedly the case is that by attacking this person – whether it was a predatory attack or defensive response to a perceived threat to her cubs – Blaze learned something that she could not have known previously: hunting humans is safe and easy. Humans can’t flee and so don’t require fat-depleting bursts of energy, and they are weak fighters that can be subdued almost instantly without negative consequence (at least in a national park, where people don’t pack anything more deadly that bear spray, and Crosby wasn’t even carrying that). And humans, including the plenitude of vulnerable ones unprepared and off-trail as Crosby was, are everywhere in her territory. While probably not as full of protein and fat compared, say, to the carcass of a bulk elk or bison, an adult human could provide enough food for Blaze and two cubs to sustain more than one nutritionally valuable feeding. In other words, the payoff for a very low-risk, very small investment of energy, is large. This is the only calculation a wild bear makes.  This is the most important insight Blaze could ever offer.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Montana Spring: Wildflowers

Suddenly around the whole neighborhood - in fact, all over town - are the indubitable signs of spring: the ground is no longer frozen (though most mornings there are signs on surfaces, like lawns and roofs, that the temperature dipped below 32° Fahrenheit before dawn), the days are definitely longer, the sun more intense. Trees have buds, and most lawns (except ours, see photo below, but that's another story) are greening up nicely! And best of all, wildflowers are popping up everywhere!

So how about these wildflowers? Here's a shot of our side yard, sprouting yellow, red, and orange:
In the front of the house we found this single big blue bloom:
Here's a nice natural bouquet arrangement of Stay greenia I found in a park while on my post-workday constitutional last week:
They're so colorful, and almost ubiquitous, at least in our development in which there is a great deal of construction and public land improvement underway (these early bloomers tend to thrive in disturbed soil), and everywhere else around town where there is excavation for, say, the burial of utilities:
I liked them so much that I was willing to deprive my neighbors the sight of these lovely signs of spring, and plucked those in our own yard (once the cable company had finished burying our fiber optic cable, which they could not do last fall when we signed up for service because the ground was already hard-frozen; the cable spent the winter successfully on top of the ground, but grass-mowing season is almost upon us), and put them in a vase where we can enjoy them night and day. Aren't they charming and cheerful!
The the red, yellow and orange ones especially nicely set off the sole blue one (scientific name Bozemania  water departmentia).

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Teddy's brush with...

Last fall we launched a long-anticipated move from a safe, small but well-appointed high-rise condo in Chicago to a new two-story house in Bozeman, Montana. It's taking us a while to settle in (i.e., to get it "well appointed"), like the book cases that should be delivered very soon so my tomes can finally be unboxed, displayed and other words, we're getting there...
Relocation has been the experience of a lifetime for our cat Teddy too. While he thoroughly enjoyed the play opportunities the packing materials provided back in Chicago, like most house cats, he's at heart a homebody, content in his element, with no particular urge for adventure beyond the front door. The cross-country drive required long days and three overnight stays along I-90 (a remarkably straight shot from the suburbs of Chicago to the exit to our Bozeman house). All of those days Teddy was confined to his carrier next to me in the car (with KLK following in the U-Haul truck). After about 15 initial minutes of registering his unhappiness each morning, Teddy would lapse into a cat snooze, with only occasional pleading looks and sad little cat comments through bars before repositioning himself for the next long nap.

At last we opened that carrier door one final time, and Teddy began the adjustment to his comparatively vast new home, with its big windows and cat-width sills from which to watch the magpies and robins, and more rooms than he'd ever seen before to be thoroughly evaluated for cat suitability. Of course, it took him no time to remember where his litter box was and where to expect his meals to be served, and every night we were there for him to join us in warm, safe sleep as we had always had been.
But what was most interesting was watching him figure out exactly how the two-story design, which he'd never encountered before, worked. The living room is double-high with a balcony overlook from the second floor. We would call to Teddy from the balcony and he would gaze up, puzzled as to what we were doing 15 feet above him -- likewise, when we were on the first floor he would poke his head between the rails, considering how this new geographic arrangement actually worked. Suddenly, after a couple of days, the light went on: he figured out that if he ran up or down the stairs he could be on the level with us again. 
He enjoyed the balcony in other ways as well. Domestic cats have never really lost their arboreal habits, and Teddy found the railing to be a more fun route to transit the landing than the floor. This concerned us, but we knew there was no way short of stringing barbed wire along the top to prevent him from his tightrope fun.

Then, two days before Christmas, with me busy in my second floor study and KLK likewise in his, it happened. All I knew was the sudden loud thud could have been caused by nothing other than Teddy pitching over the railing to the floor below. KLK's peripheral vision caught the fleeting motion of the cat's abrupt disappearance and he shouted "Teddy fell!!" We ran down the stairs that Teddy had so recently mastered and found him to be in one piece at the bottom, but very distressed. He ran behind the couch but allowed us to approach. Thank God, and miraculously, there seemed to be no damage. He was not limping, nothing swelled, no blood oozed, and he admitted no sign of pain, other than to his ego. He eventually made his way to our bed where he tried to recover his dignity, interrupted though he was by one or the other of us asking him, at no greater intervals than 15 minutes throughout that first day, if he was okay. Very concerned, but even more reluctant to add to his psychological trauma by sticking him back into the carrier, we called the vet and she agreed that if his pupils weren't dilating and he was eating (which he was, as always) and doing his thing in the litter box, there was no need to add to his stress by bringing him in. By Christmas the three of us were more or less back to normal. And to our great relief, Teddy has stayed off the railing ever since.

Flash forward about three months when I happened to get a rare look into his mouth mid-yawn.
Although a cat's mouth is private territory (at least according to Teddy), I clearly saw that the left front fang was about half the length it used to be (2010 photo). We think this must have happened when he fell, but he never let on that he was suffering. We squeezed him back into the carrier and took  him to the lovely Dr. Rosenthal at Foothills Veterinary Clinic. The doc informed us that the canine tooth was broken to the point where the sensitive inner pulp was exposed. The only cure for the doubtless tender fang was extraction.

This was accomplished yesterday. Teddy was a growling, hissing, dribbling, angry mass of misery when we picked him up post oral surgery. He was still reeling from the effects of anesthesia, including local novocaine that made him drool enormously,  and also had on board a long-acting pain medication (how great that we don't have grab his sore upper jaw to shove pain pills down him!) and a long-acting antibiotic (ditto!) with sparkling clean teeth and a stitch or two where the offending tooth used to be.

Like the garage that gives you the nail that caused your tire to go flat, Foothills presented me with the offending tooth. It's quite remarkable how enormous the root is compared to the pointy part (which albeit should be a longer than the remains of Teddy's). Of course a predator has to have well-anchored canines, which are used for capturing, securing, and tearing apart prey. But given the corresponding hole left behind, it's a wonder Teddy isn't in more distress today, even after a night's sleep and a couple of meals of soft canned food.
Last night and this morning Teddy's behavior was odd. His pupils were dilated from the drugs still in his blood stream, but he was exceptionally affectionate and interested in being held tight while he purred loudly. Purring sometimes indicates distress but he certainly seemed to want to be warm in our arms. He's always been one to flop over flirtatiously when we coo to him, but was doing it nearly constantly as if trying to rub off the smells of the hospital, until just a few hours ago. Now his energy is back, his eyes are normal, dinner went down the hatch in just a few minutes, and if he's in pain, he's not admitting it. He's young and will heal fast. Life will be better without that tender tooth, even if he never admits it was a problem in the first place.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy St. Valetine's Day 2015

Please accept this red rose from Jake, citizen of Montana Grizzly Encounter, Bozeman, Montana, as a token of his happiness and love of life in celebration of St. Valentine's Day.

MGE is a wonderful sanctuary for grizzlies that cannot be released to the wild. If you're ever in the mood to be entertained by happy bears out of their behind-the-scenes "dens" for fresh air and exercise, MGE is THE place.
Jake loves his sister Maggi especially.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Bozeman recycles

My faith in the value (to the environment, to the economy) of recycling  goes back a long, long way. My faith that the material that goes into the recycling bin ends up being recycled has never been strong, and less strong than that, that enough people recycle properly to make much of a difference. In the late 1980s I pushed for the availability of little blue waste-baskets at every desk at the huge academic medical center where I worked. Eventually, everyone did get a blue receptacle for the massive volume of papers we produced, back in the early days when desktop computers were touted as the solution to the over-use of paper, which were also the days when so much went awry with printed materials - such as the times miles of wide, continuous paper jammed on its roll through the dot-matrix printer, requiring a re-run, or two, to produce usable output. However, the blue bins with the universal "recycle" icon were (and still invariably are) distributed in the absence of any education or guidance, so even a sincere user has little idea what materials should be deposited within. The most casual observations will show that half the paper ends up in the regular basket and half the non-recyclable materials used in everyday business (including the user's lunch leavings) end up in the recycling basket. And that's before the housekeeping service picks up the baskets and dumps the contents of both into the same large plastic bag for disposal.

Years ago in Chicago I also instigated my 75-unit condominium's participation in recycling, but only by proving that the cost of  newspaper, glass, steel, and aluminum pick-up would off-set the cost of having it collected as garbage. For many years now I, and most of my neighbors, have dutifully deposited newspapers, cans, and bottles into the large signal-blue bins in the condo's garage. Those bins were picked up by the Hyde Park Resource Center, the original, and at the beginning, the only option in our 'hood; HPRC was run by devotees and there was no doubt the materials ended up where they were supposed to: in new newspapers, airplane bodies, and pickle jars. Eventually, one of the local grocery stores started accepting milk jugs and other plastic. So I do have a small, short history of hauling recycling. I like to think some of those milk jugs I dropped off are now incorporated into the newer boardwalks around Yellowstone's geyser basins. I can only hope it is so.

When we moved to our house in Montana this fall we deliberated on lots of things including whether to pay the trash pick-up service to take our recycling along with the food debris (not set up yet for mulching) and litter box leavings and materials that cannot be recycled (aka, garbage). We decided instead to start by taking our recycling to one of many locations in Bozeman, most located in out-of-the-way corners of the massive parking lots of retailers such as Home Depot and Target (extra kudos for Target, the only place in town that takes glass) and coincidentally, very close to where we live thus necessitating only the tiniest of diversions from routes we follow anyway. In particular we have been producing truckloads of cardboard between the gradually emptying moving cartons and the containers our many new purchases (oh, how much stuff a new house needs!) arrive in.

Given this opportunity the two of us have been very vigilant about our "post-consumer waste" as it's termed, much more so than we were in Chicago. KLK in particular is a huge consumer of canned soda, and I like my beer in bottles, but we also go through so many other items and have inspected even berry and tomato cartons for the distinctive icons of recyclable plastic, which, it turns out, are usually there.

Two big surprises have come from this new lifestyle of ours: 1. We don't live as light as we thought. Every day we are between the two of us capable of generating a mountain of material that would contribute a larger share than we imagined were it going to garbage, and 2. Bozemanians are very dedicated to recycling. Although I've known about and followed life in Bozeman for as many years as I've been hoping to move here, given that this is a politically conservative region, where the cause of climate change is not universally believed to be attributable to man's profligate behaviors and people drive pick-ups, not Priuses, I have been extremely pleased to witness how many residents are responsibly splitting the recyclables from their waste and exerting the mental, physical, and fossil-fuel energy to get it to a place where it will be correctly destined. The many large receptacles at each location - these photos show only a few of the bins behind Home Depot - and that they are often filled to capacity when we stop by in spite of being regularly emptied - make me doubly glad we live here among so many kindred spirits.
Here's a sampling of our daily interior leavings; the bigger cardboard, and plenty of it, is out in the garage waiting to be flattened for Home Depot's waiting bins.
(All photos taken with my Samsung S5 phone, for convenience and incredible sharpness and ability  to excellently expose photos in less-than-optimal lighting conditions.)