Sunday, February 22, 2009

From My Bookshelf

Whenever life presents itself with something I don’t understand, I often retreat into books. That’s been the case in my search for answers about Emma and her canine world: from her high drive and emotional intensity, to her intelligence and keen eagerness to interact with me, to her ability to be so strong willed yet a cuddly companion at night. From the time I brought her home until our most recent struggle for leadership, I have an on-going curiosity about why she acts like she does.

The latest book I pulled from the shelf is Temple Grandin’s recent release, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Many animal lovers and enthusiasts may know of Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. A high functioning autistic, she has revolutionized the livestock industry with her understanding of how animals, particularly cattle, think and behave. Temple has designed and created cattle chutes that take into account their prey instincts and therefore are successful in keeping them calm during handling.

In her book, Animals Make Us Human, Temple and her co-author, Catherine Johnson, discuss the core emotions system developed by researcher, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, from Washington State University. These core emotions, experienced by both animals and humans, organize and drive behavior. They include seeking, a desire to understand the environment: rage, a frustration born out of physical or emotional restraint; fear, a response to any threat to one’s survival; panic, a response to the fear of losing social attachment; lust, a desire for sex; care, a desire for maternal love and caretaking; and play, an expression of overall well-being.

Temple discusses the importance of this model of core emotions in working with dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, chickens and poultry, wildlife, and zoo animals. I was naturally most interested in the section on dogs. What I was most intrigued by was that it was so easy to see all of these core emotions in Emma’s life and behavior, as well as my own. It provided a richer and more complex view of her interaction with me and her environment.

In addition to laying out how these seven core emotions influence behavior in dogs, Temple discusses the debate over whether or not domestic dogs are pack animals and whether or not they respond to or need a pack leader. She offers an interesting perspective on the nature of modern day dogs and their artificial environments, which may set up an unnatural pack environment, from fenced-in yards, to increased use of leashes, to doggie day care. She offers the example of Cesar Milan’s Dog Psychology Center in which he cares for a large group of unrelated dogs. He takes on the role of pack leader, controlling their behavior in a situation where the dogs need to join as a pack in order not to kill one another. She says in this case, Cesar does a good job of controlling unrelated dogs in an artificial environment.

However, Temple goes on to say that dogs don’t need a substitute pack leader if there’s a natural setting in which they live. What they need is a parent. Dogs are genetically juvenile wolves and young wolves live with parents and siblings. And if dogs and owners are in settings where dogs are related by family or by their neighborhood, they will not have a need for a pack leader, but for the same kind of parental leadership and demand for socialization that children need.

I’ve struggled over this issue of whether or not I’m Emma’s pack leader or should act as her mother. I kept thinking that a pack leader is something other than a mother. But after reading Temple’s work, I understand that under most circumstances I’m Emma’s mother and I need to provide that kind of leadership. I now also understand when we are with other unrelated dogs, she has a different perspective of her place and her survival, particularly because of her terrier breed and her early and poor socialization as a puppy to older dogs. In that setting, I believe it’s necessary that I think like a pack leader. I appreciate this distinction and Temple’s ability to integrate and see such a broad and historical perspective in the lives and behavior of modern day domestic dogs. Emma and I will be much happier for it and in that way, Temple has helped us both create a better life together.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wintering Elk

Yesterday afternoon, I noticed we had visitors at the geldings hay feeder. Although it was snowing and the late afternoon light made it a bit more difficult to see, I knew we had elk helping themselves to the hay. Pete protects his hay shed every year by fencing it off from our neighboring elk herd. But now that they’ve discovered the geldings’ hay in an open feeder, it will be difficult to keep them out.

For much of the winter, they’ve been hanging around on the nearby hillside, coming down to the river to water and returning across our meadows in the early morning and evening. I’ve noticed, like I do every winter, their tracks in the meadows as they commute to the river and back. When I snowshoe on the hillside, I've heard them crashing in the oak brush and I've counted their nesting indentations in the snow. But their unparalled silence and stealth fend off my intrusion and they disappear into the oak and chokecherry bushes above me. Now, mid-winter, they've moved further into the valley floor.

Winter itself is usually not a problem for elk. Winter forces elk to migrate from higher elevations into the valleys and protected wooded areas. Elk naturally eat twigs and grasses in the winter, which are harder to digest than the tender grasses of summer. If the season is unusually long or cold, or the snow is extremely deep, covering up shrubs, twigs, and bark, they do risk depleting nutritional stores and eventual death if they are a young or weak animal. But gathered now along the cottonwood-lined river, this group of elk is protected from the wind and can feed on the bark of the trees.

It is not unusual for our neighboring elk population to come down and feed with the livestock in our valley. Because of this rather regular occurrence in the middle of the winter, ranchers in the West often ask for and receive assistance from the Department of Wildlife. The DOW provides assistance in a variety of ways including: the provision of fencing materials for hay storage sheds; the construction of ex-closures where livestock can be fed and the elk are kept out; the provision of rubber bullets to pressure the animals away from the feed; and reimbursement of the cost of replacement hay for a rancher’s livestock. When the elk present a more persistent and damaging problem to ranchers, regional DOW policy permits ranchers to harvest a small number of the foraging elk. This policy is rooted in DOW’s management of elk herd populations over the course of the year. In recent years, elk populations have remained higher than expected after hunting season because many elk herds find refuge on private lands. Extending the hunting season in this way, enables the DOW to continue to reduce some of the elk herd population and facilitate seeking a balance in their habitat.

After speaking with our DOW official, Mike Middleton, I felt reassured when he told me, “The only things that can really kill an elk are a bullet or a bumper. They are incredibly durable animals.” Whether we feed them or not won’t determine their survival. With his help we will begin our own management plan by first fending off the elk with rubber bullets and a twelve gauge shotgun as they arrive in the early evening. We will also ask to be reimbursed for the cost of the hay which is estimated at eight pounds a day per elk.

Managing the needs of our domestic livestock operation and the needs of these wild animals is not a simple one, but knowing this magnificent species will survive, whether or not we pressure them out of the feeders, allows me to enjoy and admire their enduring presence in our neighborhood.

To learn more about elk or to listen to an elk bugling, click on this link:

To read more about the debate over feeding elk, click on this link:

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Easy, Emma

Emma’s recent surgery for a luxating patella in her left hind leg went well. However, her long post-op recovery period has become a greater test for us both. She’s now in her second eight-week period of restricted activity in which she has to remain in the house or, if she’s outside, she has to be on a leash. Emma doesn’t mind being house bound in the middle of winter here at the ranch. With her short coat, she’s doesn’t clamor to be outside just to be outside. She sits with me in my office or lies in her favorite chair in the greenhouse. But when I get ready to take her out for her daily walk, she is beside herself. Emma jumps, barks, and repeatedly takes excited bow positions, knowing we’re off to recess.

At our last check-up, Dr. Egger encouraged me in this second eight weeks to put Emma on a longer lead line when we walked so she could vary her gait more as she traveled down the road. He also liked the idea that Emma would be pulling on the lease or lead line because this technically forces Emma to drive off her hind legs and strengthens them. It made sense for a full and healthy recovery for Emma. Unfortunately, there’s now just one catch. As Emma drives forward on her own, she drags me along. While her legs get stronger, so does her sense of her own leadership in our partnership. And of late, my daily mantra as I tag along behind has been, “Easy, Emma, easy.”

Little did I know when I picked out that cute little Boston Terrier puppy face online three years ago, that so much of my life would be taken up in thinking about and figuring out a way to understand and deal with a strong willed, tireless dog who would need intensive care. She challenges me and I want to give up. She challenges me and I know I can’t give up. Some days I think to myself, surely this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing with my life right now: walking two miles everyday on a forced march. What was I thinking?

I remember I was looking for companionship and that I have. Emma is eminently loyal. I remind myself that sometimes in life things or events come into our life for a reason. So I look to see what it is Emma has to teach me. She requires steadiness, perseverance, thoughtfulness, firmness, boundary setting, and a day in which recess never ends. I struggle most against the focus, discipline, and firmness it requires to be Emma’s partner. However, Emma is that wonderfully tough dog who runs as far I want to run; plays fetch and Frisbee all some summer afternoon; and adores learning new tricks and playing hide and seek. And while her activity level makes me tired and I believe she should be with an eight-year old boy, Emma hops up next to me on the couch and curls up beside me in a polar fleece blanket we share.

While I’m figuring out little by little that Emma has good reasons to be in my life other than those I anticipated when she first came home with me, I know I appreciate that Emma requires I pay attention, that I walk out the door and share her joy de vie, and that I consistently and firmly set boundaries in my relationship with her. Perhaps, Emma makes sure I keep growing up and that I enjoy the journey along the way through play and a joyous presence in each and every moment. I wouldn't doubt she's saying to me when we play and I’m often preoccupied with the next need of the day, “Easy, Mary, easy.”

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Early Birds

On the way home yesterday from my daily walk with the dogs, my neighbor Ann stopped me on her way to town. She turned off her car and said, “Hey, I just had to tell you that the bluebirds are back. I saw one right down the road here early in January and then I saw a group of them down around Cullen’s Corner (a local landmark on the road to town). At first, I wasn’t sure that’s what I saw, but one day John (her husband) was driving and I had a chance to look out for them and sure enough there they were.” The earliest she’d seen them was in February, when they’d flown into to claim one of her bluebird nesting boxes and prepare for the breeding season.

“Wow, that’s amazing. So, where do they migrate from?”

She shrugged, “Boy, I don’t know. But I’ve spotted groups of four and five on the road to town these last few weeks, so they seem to be hanging around.”

“You know, I saw a robin this winter and I’ve heard other people talk about them, but I hadn’t heard about the bluebirds coming back. Boy, you wonder what’s going on?”

“I don’t know. My sister in Cedaredge told me the Sandhill Cranes are back already down there. But you watch down the road here. That’s where I saw the first one.”

Ann seemed to laugh at her enthusiasm, “Well, I better go. I just had to tell you I’d seen them.”

So, as I drove to town this morning, I thought I’d look for Ann’s bluebirds. Just around the bend at Cullen’s Corner there it was, a small azure creature. I’d forgotten how little they were, just 6-8 inches. The brilliant blue bird, characteristic of the Mountain Bluebirds who prefer open ranchlands and other open areas of Routt County and the American West, flew to the top of a fence post, landing gracefully.

Once home, I couldn’t help but research bluebirds. Where did they come from and why were they here? In the late 1970s, bluebird populations declined by up to 70% due to both an inability to compete with two species introduced to their regions, the house sparrow and starlings, and a reduction in natural habitat. Since then, nationwide efforts to establish and maintain bluebird trails and provide nesting boxes have brought bluebird populations back to health.

Their migration patterns were interesting too. Their summer range is from central Alaska to Manitoba and southward to California and Texas. Their winter range is from Oregon and Colorado to Mexico. The map provided by the University of Cornell website indicates that the Mountain Bluebird resides in much of Colorado year round. However, northwest Colorado is considered summer breeding ground. So, what are these early birds doing here with several feet of snow on the ground? Perhaps they too, have found good food sources here just as the robins that are thought to be here because of the great berry crop from this past year. Is it too, that the weather patterns have shifted just enough that the line between summer and winter breeding grounds has begun to blur. Have northwestern Colorado temperatures in January warmed enough to bid Mountain Bluebirds an invitation to return, to prepare for their mating season?

Whatever has beckoned their return, it was a pleasure this morning to discover such a brillant blue bird on the fence post at Cullen’s Corner. For a moment I, too, understood Ann’s unbridled enthusiasm at the return of a these beautiful, diminutive creatures to our neighborhood.

For more information or to hear the sound of a Mountain Bluebird, click: