Things with Fur and Feathers

Chimps, blue-footed boobies, and four-legged besties

Sparrowdipity: An extraordinary ordinary moment with a bird

I work at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel on Thursdays. The stately hotel sits in the belly of all the skyscrapers, condos and shadow land that defines the downtown financial district. Having worked there for five years, I am an expert on where to maximize sun exposure at any given hour of my 3-9pm shift. In fact, I would almost brag that I am a human sundial. So, at 5:45 when I had a break scratched into my schedule,  I knew I would be heading with my book and prerequisite coffee to the south side of Front, just west of Bay, to my roost in front of Union Station.

I grabbed a cornmeal muffin from that oh-so-sinful-this-is-really-cake-not-a-muffin place called mmmuffins because I had wolfed back my entire lunch when I arrived at 3pm before my first client. Setting up my sun-intake camp I split my muffin in two, sucked back not-hot-enough coffee and creased the fold in Long Way Down. It’s a book I’ve been reading intermittently, and it’s going to take me the same length of time to finish it as it actually took Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman to ride on BMWs from Scotland to South Africa.

In no time I had a dozen pigeons bobbling around me. The muffin was like a heat-seeking missile. Toronto pigeons are brazen. I’m quite certain they would eat right out of your mouth if you didn’t shoo them away.

And I didn’t shoo. I appreciate all birds, even the scrappy, scavenger ones. I watched a few of them fight over a cigarette butt and felt pangs of unfortunate bird love. Then, compounding that emotion, a ratty little house sparrow landed beside me and I just about had a cry as I noticed its leg. He hopped about, chirping his fool head off as the pigeons milled about in a seemingly drunken stupor. My tiny sparrow friend was missing half his right leg and rested on a little nub that ended where a bird’s ‘knee’ would normally be.

I watched as he bounced about and leaned back on his amputee leg and wondered how I might be able to rescue him. Yes, this is my train of thought. How could I bring this sparrow back to the Annex with me, where I live, so I could take better care of his one-legged welfare?  I tossed him a bit of the muffin, and of course 100 pigeons descended upon me like a horror movie.

I tried again, to reach my disabled bird friend, and still, the bully pigeons edged him out of every crumb. Wisely, I placed a few crumbs above my head on the ledge of the wall that was too skinny for the wide hips of a pigeon. Sparrow friend took immediate note and chirped a thank you as he finally tasted the mmmuffin.

It was a very sweet moment that blurred out the rush hour commuters stampeding the sidewalk  in front of me. Suited, sweating men were sprinting to suburban trains. Skirted women in Asics runners kept stride with laptops and Louis Vuittons.

And I was focussed on a sparrow wondering what on earth happened to his leg. I wanted to somehow wrap up the muffin and send him home with it. The pigeons were pissed, name-calling no-doubt, amongst each other.

Finally the one-legged sparrow took flight (and he could fly quite confidently) and I returned to my book, personally distracted, but now holding the captive attention of 359 pigeons.

I thought about that sparrow a lot that night, and for many days after. And, this is where the story takes a Reader’s Digest type-turn. One of those back-of-the-book shorts about an extraordinary event on an ordinary day that makes you smile and feel good about the world.

Fast forward to the next Thursday. I’m at the hotel again and gathering my things to head outside for my break at 6:30-ish. At this hour, the building shadows are extreme, and the sun is just about to leave the front of the Union Station building.

I have brie and crackers and set-up in my usual spot, all fancy-like with my makeshift picnic and pate knife, spreading triple crème brie on crackers not really designed for spreading. The pigeon mass is on high alert and thrilled that I’m eating something so crumbly. I’m reading the same book, but have moved on from Luxor and the guys are in Ethiopia now, getting socked in by monsoon rains.

I’m in the moment, so absorbed in my brie and Africa. Not so distantly, I hear a bird chatter but don’t look up. The call is persistent, and getting louder. I finish the paragraph and turn my head to the left to find my darling one-legged sparrow hollering at me.

I question my mental stability when I find myself actually saying a very excited “hello!” to a bird. I am overwhelmed. Flabbergasted. It’s been an entire week and clearly, he remembers me. This is a recognition chirp. I immediately doll up a broken cracker with some brie and place it on the ledge. He pecks away so happily, resting on his half-leg as the pigeons roll their eyes and return to the cigarette butts and a blowing Dorito bag.

I can’t believe the sparrow is back. Did he come back every day and patiently wait for me? Is it a mere coincidence? Have other people had this experience with him? A rational mind would suggest, “Well, he probably doesn’t fly far because he only has half a leg. He’s probably fed all day long by people having their lunch on the steps.”

I like to think that something greater and larger than life is unfolding though. How cosmic is it that I could run into the same sparrow on two Thursdays in Toronto in June. At different times?

Is it weird to think about a bird so much?

I’m sure I pass a dozen of the same people every day on my path to work, but I don’t take notice. How, in this city of 2.7 million people and, god knows how many birds, do I see and recognize the same bird twice?

Am I having a double-rainbow-guy meme moment? “What does it meeeannnn?”

It means that life is really cool and surprising. It means that I will be looking for this sparrow every Thursday on my break. It means that I will be slightly devastated if we miss each other.


Click here to see the hyper-emotional double rainbow dude if you somehow missed it the first time round.


Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Jann Arden and the Dog Whistle Blower

photo credit: Sue Sortino

photo credit: Sue Sortino

On Sunday, every Canadian news source was belching out the story of Jann Arden getting sidetracked by VIA Rail for inadvertently boarding a train in Toronto with her ever-present Morkie in tow. Midi, her darling four pound dog became a weighty issue when noticed by a policy watchdog VIA employee en route to Ottawa. After several sightings by other staff members, Arden was told by Mr. Dog Whistle Blower that commute-savvy Midi could be caged and ride the remainder of the trip in the baggage car, or, the illegal duo would have to disembark at the next station, Oshawa (commonly referred to as the ‘middle of nowhere’ by those who live somewhere. And, blog editor’s note: When you live in downtown Toronto, anything east or north of The Pie Shack on Queen East in The Beaches is outer space).

Clearly, VIA Rail has a pet peeve. If dogs were baggage, would they not come with handles already fastened on their backs for easier carrying? This is their policy (from

Only cats, dogs and small rodents are allowed aboard VIA trains. They must be carried in a rigid cage large enough for them to stand in and you must provide a padlock to keep it shut. Please be aware that baggage cars are often heated, but not air-conditioned, and so your pet may be exposed to high temperatures.

The GO Train is entirely on track and encouragingly progressive with their online policy:

We allow animals on board our trains and buses when they are in enclosed, secure containers that do not inconvenience other passengers. Containers are not needed for seeing-eye, hearing-ear, or special-needs dogs required by passengers for independent travel.

A passenger with disabilities needing a companion and/or a specially trained dog for assistance may bring either or both along free of charge. If you are bringing a companion for assistance, your GO ticket seller can endorse your single-ride or day pass as a “party ticket.” It will be marked so two people can ride with one ticket or pass.

And the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)?

Leashed pets or pets secured in an enclosed container are welcome to travel on the TTC during weekday off-peak periods – that is before 6:30 am; 10:00 am to 3:30 pm; after 7:00 pm. A Service Animal may accompany a passenger at any time.

We are living in an increasingly dog-centric world (hurray!), and the Fairmont Hotel chain knew they were barking up the right tree when they introduced their Very Important Pooch program and brought dog ambassadors on staff in 2009. The canine hotel residents are available for traveling dog-owners needing a fur and slobber fix, or for those wanting some extra security as they walk about an unfamiliar city. Check out Gracie, Mavis and their Fairmont colleagues–proud pooches who take up regal addresses in Vancouver, Tremblant, Kenya and Scotland.

If you are toting your own dog along in your travels, the Fairmont caters to your pal by providing gourmet dog treats prepped by the Executive Chef, pet-friendly walking maps of the city and a 5% donation from your room rate to local animal rescue teams. Go Fairmont!

Isn’t this how it should be? All of this pro-pet endorsement makes Sunday’s fiasco so trivial.

But ‘all of this’ is not really the point. It was the reaction and sour uproar that ensued on Twitter and Facebook by Jann Arden followers. The feed took on a vicious momentum with cross-armed Oshawa ambassadors cranky about Arden’s “middle of nowhere” tweet to all those allergic to dogs crying “shame!” to a very vocal camp who praised any dog’s company over the presence of crying, bratty children on trains. A bitter VIA rail Service Sucks coalition emerged alongside rattled VIA staff and a mysterious mass who decided this was all a narcissistic, fabricated publicity stunt for Jann Arden’s tour. Really?

Unfortunately, social media has become an easily accessed platform for destructive mouthing off and bullying. The virtual combat inertia continued when Arden wrote a genuine explanatory piece to the Ottawa Citizen titled “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” and posted it on her Jann Arden Official Facebook page. Last check? There were 262 comments, 84 shares and 464 likes. The thread read like a ping pong game between the parties jockeying for the last word.

Apparently Facebook and Twitter have become the hotbed venue for failed high school debating team dreams. Fans rallied with steely support while naysayers lashed out, demonstrating black belts in criticism. It was like a congregation of vultures, scavenging and nit-picking near skeletal remains. Etch-a-sketch minds with one-way thinking. One comment would shake them up and they’d start all over again, right back to the beginning.

Because Jann Arden said Oshawa was the ‘middle of nowhere.’

Because she accidentally took her dog on the train, unaware of VIA Rail’s ‘no pets in the passenger car’ policy.

Because she was human and upset to be left in an desolate parking lot with a looming performance in Ottawa that very night.

What has happened to us as a society? We have become such sorry suckers for celebrity fodder, our brains have become cotton candy. Remember the media storm over Shiloh Jolie-Pitt’s haircut? Is the world really concerned that her “boyish” and “deviant” haircut is going to make her a lesbian? Better yet: Angelina’s secret plan is to turn Shiloh into a boy! Say it isn’t so!

The celebrity attack is embarrassing: leaked casket photos from Whitney Houston’s funeral, Lindsay Lohan’s hit and run details, audio of Demi Moore’s 911 call, did Ashely Judd have surgery? Dennis Quaid’s divorce details, and reports that Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds can’t stop cuddling and kissing on flight to L.A.


And it continues. In yesterday’s Toronto Star there was a cheeky Ode to Oshawa by Katie Daubs: “Mayor Henry’s 10 reasons to visit Jann Arden’s ‘middle of nowhere.’”

Who knew that Oshawa had so many ambassadors? I hope they all run for city council and proudly volunteer in their community. The Twitter and Facebook feed was rampant with rabid Oshawa fans, more concerned about their tarnished city reputation than by Midi taking a joyride on the train.

Reason #8 to visit Oshawa cited the University of Ontario Institute of Technology campus (who knew we even had a University of Ontario?), which is home to the world’s largest climatic wind tunnel. How have I not seen this?

And, apparently Mayor John Henry hands out Oh Henry! Bars as business cards. If only his last name were Crunchie or Bounty. Or whiskey.

I’m disappointed in our province and the corrosive commentary of the Twitter army. And that Jann didn’t get an invite for a wind tunnel tour or an Oh Henry! Bar.

But now, because of all this, we know that caged rodents are also permitted on VIA rail in the baggage area. And that Oshawa has “Tank Saturdays” where you can see live demonstrations of the largest collection of working antique military vehicles in the country.

Anyone want to take their rodent for a train ride to Oshawa this weekend?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Day by Donkey

Camels. Taxis. Feluccas. Water taxis. Ferries. Hot air balloon. Private 4×4. Planes. Donkey.

When I think back to all our modes of transportation across Egypt, our donkey (and the hot air balloon) proved to be the most reliable.

After the exhausting frenetic pace of Cairo, we welcomed slowing the day down to donkey speed in the Siwa Oasis. We had no ambition to rent bikes as the heat barely allowed us to walk more than 10 minutes at a time without feeling like we might faint. And riding through sand? It would be like touring the town with two flat tires and a heart ready for a bypass. Besides, the careta (donkey cart) drivers were desperate for business and Mohammed insisted that he was the best. His powder-white speckled donkey, Ali Baba, was trustworthy and ready to work after a fig-heavy breakfast (three pounds worth!).

Mohammed was gentle with his donkey, guiding him with light brushes of a stick on his hindquarters, indicating right and left turns. To encourage him to “giddy up,” Mohammed made a clicking sound and we were off, a trail of desert dust in our wake. Apparently donkeys can match the speed of a horse, and Ali was a steady runner with enviably chiselled legs.

In Egypt, the donkey is the symbol of the God, Ra, and is highly respected. In 2003, the tombs of two of Egypt’s first pharaohs were excavated, revealing the skeletons of 10 donkeys. They were buried in a manner usually reserved for high ranking humans.

Donkeys have been used as pack animals for over 6,000 years. Folklore suggests that coming in contact with a donkey, or using hairs from the cross-shaped pattern on the donkey’s back, were used to cure whooping cough and measles. A Jewish physician in 1,000 AD believed that riding a donkey backwards would cure a scorpion sting. I hoped that we wouldn’t have to attempt either remedy.

Portrayed most often as stubborn asses (Eddie Murphy’s take on “Donkey” in Shrek) or as a melancholic loner in Winnie The Pooh (Eeyore), Ali Baba had his own distinct personality far from stubborn and sullen. True, he did voice his opinion as we let night fall, absently enjoying hot mint tea and conversation by Fatnas Island. His bray suggested that “just in case you forgot your watch, the sun has set, and I’d like to start heading back.”

Ali Baba made pulling the careta seem effortless, and if we did find ourselves in a sluggish section of “road,” where the sand was too loose for the cart to gain purchase, we hopped out, and sometimes gave a running push to help him along.

Ali Baba, illegally parked

Mohammed had pimped out the wooden cart with a tiny mirror, a Christmas tree-shaped air freshener, plush heart pillows, sun-bleached cushions and tacked up photos of tourists posing by his careta with Ali. The Polaroids had faded almost completely, with the faces nearly ghost-like, but the spirit of each traveller carried on in the animated stories he shared. Mohammed shyly told us that he would like to redecorate his cart. Once tourism picked up, he had several ideas as to how he would jazz up the interior. He talked about a cart that he admired, and how he would model his after it. His cart would be the talk of the town.

We logged a lot of hours in Ali Baba’s cart. Kim and I sat facing each other in the back, protected from the searing sun by a canopy finished with a pom pom fringe, with enough leg room that we only occasionally bumped knees. We toured all of Siwa, with Mohammed and Ali patiently waiting in the “shadows” (shade) as we explored the temples and tombs of the Mountain of the Dead. We stopped at Dakrur mountain, the spring of Cleopatra and soon became lost in the smooth rhythm of a day by donkey.

The night we returned late from the hot springs, stars had already taken their place in the sky. Nearing the market square, Ali let out a bray that startled us and in turn, made Mohammed laugh. Still clipping along at a canter, Ali continued his excited bray.

“What’s that all about? Did he see another donkey?” I asked.

Mohammed explained that they were close to his house, and that Ali thought his work was done for the day. I wanted to hop out and walk the rest of the way back to Al Babenshal Hotel so Ali could get to his figs and barley already. And take a load off.

On our last night in Siwa, Mohammed asked us to wait while he retrieved a copy of his address. I stood by Ali and massaged his neck. I had taken a horse massage course while I was out west, and knew all the sweet spots to hit on a horse’s neck. He leaned into the pressure with closed eyes. As I kneaded the contracted muscles at the base of Ali’s neck, I wondered how I could transition careers into a full-time donkey massage therapist.

Mohammed returned, boyishly grinning, as always. He handed photocopied sheets to Kim and I with his address in English and Arabic.

Name: Mohammed Soliman Baheeg

Address: Siwa Next to Hospital—Marsa Matrouh, Egypt.

This was his genuine address. Kim and I shook our heads and wondered why Canada Post had such difficulty in delivering packages on time, or at all.

We promised to send photos of us with Ali for his new 2012 cart. We embraced and said we would look for Mohammed when we returned in the future.

“I will be an old man, then. People don’t come back like they say. Not for many, many years.”

We watched as they turned around in the market square and headed back towards home. One day we would be one of those ghost-like faces tacked inside his cart. And I hoped that our story and time with Mohammed would live on longer than the ink in the photo. Indelibly.

Categories: Passport Please, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Tarra & Bella: Love Conquered All

In the olden days (the 1980s to me), I imagine people played records, maybe even cassettes to fully engulf themselves in an emotion. It’s easy to entrench ourselves in despair by cueing up music, that’s universal. There are movie titles that are guaranteed to stir up the quality of weeping reserved for weddings and funerals (Beaches, Fried Green Tomatoes, Love Story). Some books can trigger laughter, but, more easily, melancholy (The Art of Racing in the Rain, Marley & Me—okay, any book about a dying dog).

Sometimes we want to find that emotional rock-bottom place, and dwell in it. We put Jann Arden on repeat and watch reliable broken-heart movies like Out of Africa or Love Affair on Christmas Day. It’s easy to encourage sadness and hopelessness. Rain helps too, a lot.

Now we can go a step further, and instigate crying jags instantaneously with the help of viral YouTube videos.  Who hasn’t found themselves in a sporadic sleep pattern, typing in the words “Christian lion reunion” or “Damian and the gorilla”? How about “orangutan & dog best friends” or “dog and dolphin”?

If you have watched any of this sob-inducing footage on repeat, surely you have also put “Tarra and Bella” on your “I feel-like-drinking-more-wine-and-having-a-good-cry” list.

Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

 The relationship between a stray dog (Bella) and an elephant (Tarra) at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee found instant fan fare on YouTube. If two species, divided by size alone, could embrace each other, what was our problem as humans?

Tarra was one of the sanctuary’s first elephants. Her devout canine sidekick, Bella, found her comfortable place in Tarra’s shadow in 2003. They were inseparable and appeared like lovers from another lifetime.

The viral video that had viewers wiping tears from their necks showed a distraught Tarra, grieving for the company of her dear dog who had suffered a spinal cord injury and was unable to walk. As Bella was recovering in the sanctuary office, Tarra kept vigil for three weeks, until her best pal was carried down to her enclosure. Tarra’s exuberant trumpet, and her trunk gingerly touching and reassuring injured Bella was heart-splitting. I have probably watched the video 30 times.

Today, my friend Karen sent a link about the tragic news of Bella. Tuesday morning Bella was missing, and sanctuary staff initiated an immediate search that continued until Wednesday.  Her body was found near a barn that Tarra and five other elephants share. The Sanctuary’s vet, Dr. Scott , determined that Bella was a victim of an animal attack, most likely coyote.

But there’s more.

Due to the extent of Bella’s injuries, staff believe it would have been impossible for Bella to be found where she was, without any evidence of struggle around the area. Tarra’s trunk had blood on the underside, which led sanctuary personnel to wonder if she had found her friend and carried her back to a safer resting place.

There are parts of the story that will never be known. Did Tarra witness the attack? Did she arrive too late and in her desperation to protect Bella, carry her from the awful scene? I can’t imagine how heavy her heart felt. The anger she would have in herself for not saving Bella. The rage she would have that a precious life and friendship could be severed so unexpectedly.

Concrete evidence exists that elephants mourn. They experience debilitating sorrow and have their own funeral rites. National Geographic has documented elephants in Kenya as they discover matriarchal bones by a water source. Silently, they created a defensive circle and then elaborately touched the surface of the sacred bones before them, every crevice and notch. They held the bones in their trunks and touched them gently with their hind feet.

Similarly, a BBC documentary showed a herd that happened upon an elephant corpse. It was as though they were paying homage to the deceased with closed eyes and complex thought. They fondled the bones in a way that indicated they were fully aware of not just life, but death.

Tarra was given the opportunity to pay her last respects to Bella, but showed little interest. This is why staff suspect that she may have already said her goodbyes, having endured the night with the knowledge that her friend had passed on to another world.

Their relationship is a confirmation that regardless of our species, we are intimately connected. It would be ignorant to think that only humans could experience the crisis and hollowness of a life lost.

Dog, elephant, man—we are sharing a fragile planet. Our relationships to and with each other define us. They evolve and present a continual opportunity to change, and be better. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, remarkable things can happen.

Bella’s life should be a reminder of just that.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Babysitting? Give Me Fish & Ferrets.

Dori (aka Ms. Pac Man)

“Do you mind looking after my fish while we’re in Montreal?” Dax said after handing me a set of apartment keys he had cut.

The fish have always stressed me out for good reason. The tank is saltwater and has a labyrinth of pipes and wires and filters and several sensitive things. Coincidentally, on two previous fish-sitting terms, two of Dax’s fish died in my care. The deaths weren’t suspicious, just inappropriately timed to make me look negligent.

Dax (and Dori doing a drive-by)

The size of the tank is what Sea Monkeys would dream the great ocean to be. Small children could swim in it and be required to stand on tippy-toes. Dori, a Regal Blue Tang fish (just like Dori in Finding Nemo) is nine-years-old now. Copper, a brilliant yellow tang, would be in university (or a nice community college) if fish years translated into human years like the dog formula. And Skittles (so named for his skittling, skitterish, scooting hide n’ seek qualities) has played a big companionship role in Dax’s life too. They watch Dax make coffee in the morning and follow him about the kitchen and livingroom from their vantage point. The intimate relationship between man and fish is undeniable.

The fish have a chiller (an underwater air conditioning system to maintain the 78 degree urban tank temps), a dynamic lighting canopy that operates on moon/tidal cycles (I made that part up) and a fanciful diet of sea kelp, bloodworms, spirulina and krill (shrimp).  The money invested in Dax’s tank would make a tidy down payment on a condo in Liberty Village.

Dax has dumb-ified the instructions for me again, complete with four emergency contact numbers. The kelp is easy-peasy to administer. The kelp sheet is folded once, put in a clip and attached by suction cup to the side of the tank. Or, if you are David, the demoted (but still best friend) fish-sitter, you fail to make suction contact and watch the clip fall ever so gently and ever-so-slow-motionally to the bottom of the tank into the coral that looks like a velvet brain with wavy tendrils. Not even salad tongs and a half-submerged arm can retrieve such lost clips.

The kelp is breakfast—dinner is when the frozen gourmet cubes are unveiled. They are smaller than a Caramilk square, and probably disgusting to anyone with a squirmy stomach in relation to frozen bloodworms.

Now here’s the kicker. The frozen cube must be hand-held while Dori feeds because she has become accustomed to Dax’s royal princess treatment. Every fish-sitting stint I do, I have to reacquaint myself with Dori’s accidental ‘nips.’ She is like a rabid Ms. Pac Man, attacking the cube in rapid bites. The bloodworms that Dori miraculously misses float about the tank for timid Skittles and the less dominant Copper to ingest.

Tonight, with frozen cube vice-gripped between index finger and thumb, I was reminded of the hamster Dax had when he was younger. He was sensibly named “Hammy” as I’m sure 1 in 20 hamsters are. Hammy liked to be hand-fed too, and he also liked to bite the hand that fed him on occasion as well. We would stick our nervous and vulnerable hands in the cage and approach sparkly-eyed Hammy with carrots and apple slices. He would be appreciative and cute-looking, his tiny pink paws gingerly accepting the offering, then, out of nowhere, CHOMP. I can see myself, still, completely terrified and startled, as though a python had bit me.  I would try and remove my hand from the cage so quickly that the entire wire cage structure would come with my hand, the lower tray would fall to the floor, shavings would whoosh everywhere and Hammy would make a run for it while I assessed a need for stitches or not.

Rational Fear

Feeding Dori, I can’t have such girly moments and retract my hand in irrational fear because the lighting canopy would probably come crashing down inside the tank, electrocuting all of us. Already, I have to precariously perch on a Parsons chair to reach the top of the tank. Here I watch Dori at eye-level and can anticipate when she is going to accidentally nab me instead of the bloodworm buffet. I’m on to her now.

I’ve sustained a lot bites while fish-sitting, ferret-sitting, bunny-sitting, chimp-sitting and the like.  I even had a kid sister who liked to bite more than Hammy the hamster. Kiley would sink her teeth in, cross her eyes, growl and leave perfect indentations of her molars in your unsuspecting arm. My childhood fear of cross-eyed, growling biters probably explains why I’ve never babysat kids. But that doesn’t mean ferret-sitting is any easier.

I worked at a nature centre in my teen years as a Jr. Resource Interpreter (my badge even said so). What I didn’t interpret so well, was how interested Musky the ferret was with Tuffy the snapping turtle. On a slow winter morning at the centre, I let Musky out of his cage to scoot around the auditorium. I was doing a water change on Tuffy’s tank and had placed him in a plastic tub on the floor. I could hear Musky scampering about and continued with the task. When I bent down to pick up Tuffy and return him to the tank (he was about the size of personal pan pizza then), he was gone.

I wasn’t alarmed because Tuffy didn’t have many hiding options in the auditorium. I scanned the floor and between the rows of chairs and eventually heard banging from behind the tank. Then silence. I investigated and could see Musky’s albino tail poking out from behind the tank. He had Tuffy in his mouth and Tuffy was wedged sideways between the wall and the tank.

I convinced Musky to release his death grip on the shell and he bit me instead (this was nothing new).  Tuffy hovered a few inches off the floor, suspended between the wall and the tank. Musky decided to leave the crime scene and with a firm grip I was able to tip Tuffy vertically and slide him out, without getting snapped by the snapping turtle.

Harley, overcoming obstacles

I’ll take Ms. Pac Man, the back-kicking rabbits, the clawed cats that I have to force-feed buttered pills, lizards needing live crickets and chimps with an appetite for candles, hair gel, dish detergent and Coke. I’ll mix sardine and kibble broths for Marlon Brando and let Harley the border collie stand with three paws on my stomach and neck while I try to do crunches on the floor.  

But babysitting kids?

That thought still scares me.

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Leave a comment

What On Earth Are We Doing?

An "eco-tourism lodge attraction" in the Congo

My original intention was to Google the story about the 32 monkeys that died when a Nevada lab overheated. Charles River Laboratories is one of 26 registered US  importers of primates (others on the list include zoos, universities and private labs). An article on indicated that 27, 388 primates were imported into the US in 2008, with an average of 25,000 primates being imported in the last four years. In 2008, Charles River housed over 10,000 primates at their facility alone.

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

The company’s history traces back to the 1940s when veterinarian  Dr. Henry L. Foster bought a Maryland rat farm for breeding purposes. Later, on a trapping expedition in the Himalayas, Foster returned to the states with several Rhesus monkeys to create a quick-breeding stock of 800. The monkeys were bred on two Florida islands where workers captured 400-500 a year to be sold to labs worldwide.

When I keyed “monkey” into the search engine, “monkeys for sale” immediately appeared in the drop-down list. Curious and appalled, I clicked on it. Monkeys for sale in Canada? I clicked through the pages and found a Japanese Snow monkey for $6,500, posted by Northern Exotics near Sudbury, Ontario. “This is a legit sale and not a scam as so often seen with monkeys.” There was also a baby female Snow monkey for $3,500, OBO.

The Northern Exotics site also boasted Jamaican Fruit bats, armadillos, sugar gliders and Fennec foxes.  In Montreal, Quebec, Pastor Emmanuel and his wife Cindy have an advert that says they “are giving out cute baby marmosets for adoption to any Christian, pet loving and caring family.” The babies are house-raised, diaper and leash trained, wear clothes and like to watch TV.

The primatestore. com had a Christmas special on infant black-handed spider monkeys—only $9,000 each. Tentatively, I keyed in “Chimps for sale.” I was stunned. There were several listings for chimps in Texas and Ohio.  One of the links led me to a 2008 SPCA report on the rescue of Henry, a 23-year-old chimp who was found at an emaciated 60 pounds (half the body weight of a healthy chimp) in a cage so small that it caused him severe spinal deformities. The cage was littered with empty soda cans and cigarette butts.

On the site PRLog Free Press Release I came across this headline: “We Sale Big Monkeys, Chimpanzees, Orang tuans, Gorillas.” They advertised worldwide delivery in two to three working days to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Here’s a cut and paste of the ad at :

PR Log (Press Release)Mar 08, 2010 – You need a monkey babies or old ?  a chimpanzee, orang utans, gorillas, big cats, panter  please call us tehn we can get it done within 2 working days deliver to your home  or you can pick it up payment upon receival   we can also trains this animals for you  in additional 6 weeks  time.

I remember the day Chantal, Sevrine and I were driving out to a quarry for a picnic (in the Congo). We saw a sinewy Congolese boy in his early teens at the roadside. As our vehicle approached he lifted a dik dik in the air (a dik dik is a small, antelope-like animal). He began shouting at us as we slowed down. The dik dik was for sale. I hadn’t even seen a dik dik in the wild the entire month I was there, and was saddened to see a young one for sale that would most likely be bought as a pet by an expat, or slaughtered.

The image of the dik dik still haunts me, as does the arrival of Ikia, the chimp who was flown to the J.A.C.K. chimp sanctuary where I volunteered in Lubumbashi. She arrived dehydrated and limp-bodied, and died less than 12 hours later in the arms of Augustin. She was bought for $120 US on the roadside of Kalemie in a burlap sack bound with twigs.

Ikia, sold for $120 in Kalemie, Congo

Writing this post, I feel the dull pulse of a headache. It’s one that stems from frustration, and when I find another ad for a chimp for sale in Yellowknife, posted December 28th, I am exasperated. For $700, “King,” an eight-month-old chimp comes with a complete instruction book and other toys and accessories.

I need Jane Goodall on speed dial. Chimps and monkeys are not intended as pets. We can all easily recall the disturbing images of Charla Nash who was attacked by her friend’s chimp in Stamford, Connecticut, can’t we? The chimp was eventually shot by police due to his aggression. Nash is suing her friend, Sandra Herold, for $50 million saying she “was negligent and reckless for lacking the ability to control a wild animal with violent propensities.”

Travis, Herold’s chimp, had lived with her for 14 years. He had appeared in several TV commercials and a television pilot, as well as promotional events for Herold’s towing business. Nash is left blind, wearing a veil so she doesn’t scare people with her unsightly appearance.

I returned to the article on the Nevada research monkeys that were killed by human error. The company was charged just last year when a monkey was scalded to death after it was accidentally sent through an automatic cage washer.

Ikia at the J.A.C.K. sanctuary

Andrew Westoll, author of The Riverbones had posted the original article on his Facebook profile page. Westoll, a former biologist and primatologist who decided to focus on his dynamic writing talent is to publish Thirteen Chimpanzees in the spring of 2011. The thirteen chimps he writes about have spent decades in US biomedical research labs and have now found a safe haven at the Fauna Foundation in Quebec. The chimps share the farm with over a hundred other rehabilitating animals rescued from the entertainment industry, research labs or agriculture. Fauna is their forever home. As the home page for the Foundation promises, the animals are provided with companionship and enrichment, “free from the fear and hardships they have known.”

I clicked on the chimp In Remembrance page, knowing that I would be inconsolable. I read about Donna Rae, the chimp who came from the Animal Kingdom Talent Service. She learned to ride a bike and how to play the guitar. In her last five years at a lab, she was used in HIV studies that involved lymph node and bone marrow biopsies. Following one intervention, she actually went into shock from the pain. The obituary reads: “constantly mutilating herself, Donna always looked as though she had given up all hope.”

I read about Pablo who chewed off one of his fingers, clearly the direct result of being darted over 220 times, enduring 30 biopsies and being injected with 10,000 times the lethal dose of HIV.

In 1959, Annie was stolen from her family in Africa. She became part of the circus before spending 21 years in the lab as a breeder. Billy was often found having panic attacks so violent that he would be left convulsing. His teeth had been knocked out by a crow bar. After 15 years in the entertainment industry, he was knocked out 289 times for 40 liver and lymph node biopsies. He eventually chewed off  his own thumbs. Jean was inoculated with HIV after several cervical biopsies. After a nervous breakdown she removed all of her fingernails. Her aggressive seizures led to “floating hand and foot,” a condition that led her to attack her own feet and hands, as though they were not her own.

Fifteen years ago I wrote a feature for Cockroach magazine, a publication of the Environmental Youth Alliance, where I worked in Vancouver, BC. It was an expose of the bear bile and bear part trade industry in China. There are currently 7,000 bears on bear bile farms in China, caged and exploited for their bile which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The bears have surgically implanted tubes in their gall bladders and are “milked” twice a day. Once they stop producing bile (between five and ten years of age), the bears are left to die of starvation or illness, or killed so the farm can sell their paws ($250 each). In the15 years since I wrote that article, the farms have grown in size and production.

In the documentary The Cove I watched the waters of Taiji, Japan turn scarlet red with the slaughter of dolphins. Over 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed every year, driven to shore by the fishing boats where they are harpooned. Due to suffocating media pressure and response to the documentary, Taiji actually called for a temporary ban on killing bottlenose dolphins.

Exposure brings education, hope and change.

The news seems to be littered with abominable stories of animal abuse lately. Like the 11 rare Siberian tigers who died at a zoo in Beijing. There is speculation that zoos in China may be deliberately breeding more animals than they can afford, selling the carcasses to the black market for use in traditional medicines and liquor. An article in the Hamilton Spectator reported the tigers starved to death, having been fed nothing but chicken bones. Since, there have been reports of tiger farms steeping the bones of deceased tigers in liquor which is then sold to visitors.

There are 300 Siberian tigers left in the wild, 50 in China. Five thousand more live in captivity on farms and wildlife parks across China.

I could go on.

However, there is hope. Jane Goodall says so. She is lecturing in Toronto next week, celebrating the 50th anniversary of her plight to bring the story of her chimps in Gombe, Tanzania to the world. Her latest book, Hope For Animals and Their World, How Endangered Species are Being Rescued From the Brink (co-authored with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) spotlights the enormous efforts of several individuals and field biologists who have truly saved several species from the brink. Her message is uplifting, and instils motivation. She dedicates the book to “the memory of Martha, the last passenger pigeon—and to the last Miss Waldron’s colobus monkey and the last Yangtze River dolphin. As we think of their lonely end, may we be inspired to work harder to prevent others suffering a similar fate.”

Please watch The Cove. Read about the Flora Foundation. Become a fan of Andrew Westoll’s Thirteen Chimpanzees on Facebook.. Buy tickets to see empowering speakers like Jane, a woman who has given her life to a crusade that should remind us all of the fragility and interconnectedness we share with animals on this Earth.

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.” –Barbara Kingsolver

Andrew Westoll’s site:

Jane Goodall’s Hope For the Animals:

More on the bear trade industry:

The Cove

Fox News article on Nevada research monkeys:

Christian marmosets for sale:

Northern Exotics:

The Fauna Foundation:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

To All The Dogs I’ve Loved Before

I’ve heard all the remarkable love stories of polar opposites finding soul mates. The Croatian and the Serbian. The devout Catholic and the atheist. Online lovers that defy geography. Ex-girlfriends who now have boyfriends. Even the story of the fate-filled collision in a Vancouver dog park where two individuals met over the laughter of calling for two different dogs who shared the same name. They got married. And what a great love story—I can just imagine the curious expression of other dog-parkers when they talk with the now-married couple with two dogs of the same name. 

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to address the most transcendent type of love. And that would be the love of a dog. This is a tribute to all the dogs I’ve loved before.

Last Saturday I cut through Allan Gardens on my way to work. A golden retriever galloped after a tennis ball and cantered towards me with the prized ball. His face and swagger was so similar to Bently’s, but when he looked up at me, there was no acknowledgement. He carried on towards his owner. In that instant I realized how lovely it is to have a dog’s acknowledgement. There is no greater feeling than when you have been separated from your dog (even for the length of a work day) and you get that knowing look that a dog gives his owner that says, “Hey, there you are! My person! Where have you been? What took you so long? I’ve been patiently waiting for you all day!”

Josh Grogan’s Marley & Me captured this divine relationship in words. A man and his dog can share an incredible intimacy that is unmatched. And if you don’t love dogs? I don’t think I want to know you because there is something obviously wrong with your human wiring.

Enter Xanadu. He was a drop-off. We lived on a country road where apparently it was acceptable for people to drop off unwanted pets that would hopefully have the persistence to find a new, forever home by themselves.  I remember getting off the school bus (age 6?), about to charge down the driveway to secure my place in front of the TV to watch The Flintstones, but instead, found myself on my knees in the grass, mauling my very own dog. Dreams did come true!

I had wanted an English sheepdog in a terrible way. My mother said, “You can barely comb your own hair, how will you ever take care of a sheepdog?” I didn’t care about my own hair, but I promised and swore on everyone’s grave that I would brush my sheepdog until it was fluffier than candy floss.

Xanadu was my sheepdog alternate. He was a Benji knock-off, very vocal, but extremely dedicated. He slept at my side, woke when I did and was always game for my expeditions to the pond, corn field or train tracks. Because that’s how I spent my days. I would eat Froot Loops as required by my parents, and then disappear with my dog until the sun went down.

My grandparents and uncles who lived at the end of Arthur Road had a motley crew of dogs over the years. There was a dopey St. Bernard, a politically incorrectly named black lab (“Spook”), a Great Pyreneese,  a few Rotties (that kept my dad in the car—honking until my Aunt Freda would come to the rescue)…but we all gelled. Those dogs could run like greyhounds and followed my cousins and I when we hopped on my grandfather’s tractor to wherever the tractor stopped. They swam with us in the murky irrigation ponds full of leeches and duckweed. They braved the ferocious February temperatures, just to hang out with us.


Xanadu’s short and furry stature meant he accumulated a lot of snowballs on his legs though—sometimes making him completely immobile. On one cross-country sojourn I had to leave my ski poles behind, pick him up, and awkwardly ski home with his shivering, snowballed body in my arms.

There was a Christmas when Xanadu disappeared. For hours. I cried and cried on my bunk bed at the loss of my very best friend. I was so inconsolable I moved to the floor, which would allow for more dramatic crying. My dad was still out in the storm with a flashlight, desperately trying to find our dear dog. As I pounded my fists into the shag carpet, I heard a sound. I held my breath. I looked under my bunk bed and found Xanadu! He was curled up on the stupid Sears bomber jacket that I received for Christmas—the one that I had hidden under my bed because it was so awful. I never wanted to wear it. My rational mind thought that my parents would forget about it if it were tucked away until spring. Naturally I had to confess when everyone crowded into my bedroom and fell to their bellies to welcome Xanadu back (even though he had been warm and comfortable and sleeping on my unwanted bomber jacket all night).

He lived to be 17. Plus all the years he lived before us in a world that we would never know of. One day he just walked away, nearly blind, nearly furless, and found a safe place to move on to the next world. My dad never stopped looking for him. Every night after work he would walk until dusk, calling Xanadu’s name. We never found him.

Certainly, no dog could replace Xanadu, because he was the first. But I have been charmed by many since.

Ripley was a black lab-shepherd cross that belonged to a transient roommate in Vancouver when I was 18. Ripley (or “Re-play” as my French roomie referred to her) was an embarrassment to walk. She practically walked on her hind legs. I do believe she competed in the Iditarod in another life time, because the click of her collar around her neck set her off. Oh, how the neighbour’s would look and point at the spectacle that we were. I often walked Ripley, due to my incurable love of dogs. She would choke herself to death on the leash and drag me to the park in three minutes flat. I have a scar on my index finger as a testament to her wild ways. Ripley loved to chase the tennis ball, but only once. Then it was a tug-of-war to get the ball back. Or, bloodshed, in my case. But she didn’t meant to bite my finger nearly in two, I’m sure of it.

I lived vicariously through my friends’ dogs for many years. I even found kinship with Toughie, my Croatian neighbour’s pit bull. Toughie terrorized my partner on a daily basis and Ziggy kindly offered this sage advice:  “If Toughie attacks, pull his front legs apart and it will break his ribcage. Game over.”

Yeah, right. He was telling this to a person who picked worms off the sidewalk so they wouldn’t get stepped on. The person who would throw washed-up starfish back to the sea. I saved spiders from being squashed in the house and rescued sunbathing snapping turtles and snakes from careless drivers on the back roads. Even if I was being attacked by Toughie, I’d never break his ribcage.

Scrappy's lion impersonation

In Uganda, I was elated to learn that the Jane Goodall office had three dogs. When I arrived, there were actually five. Beevis and Buster were temporary additions, who immediately failed the guard dog test. Levi, the biggest and beefiest of the lot, proved to be the suck of the bunch. When a thunderstorm rolled in across Lake Victoria, Levi was the first one pawing to get under my mosquito net. I would hurry downstairs to get the Rescue Remedy for him (a homeopathic anti-anxiety treatment for humans, but dog-friendly). Levi would immediately sit and gladly swallow the Remedy, then assume his position with me in the single bed, beside the two other scaredy cats–Scrappy and Tinker.

Scrappy stole my heart, he was like a little deer. His life was a charmed one—chasing cocky Vervet monkeys who dared step foot on his turf. Tinker, the darling black lab was more concerned with fetching. He wasn’t picky about the fetch item either. In fact, Tinker would find pieces of wood the size of matchsticks to fetch. He would drop a dead cockroach at your feet as a fetch offering. Most of the time the sticks he found were so small that they would remain stuck to his tongue. He would be  convinced that he had dropped the matchstick at your feet already and take off running in anticipation of the throw.

I recently learned that Scrappy, Tinker and Levi have moved from their African digs. Due to staff changes at the Uganda office, no one was going to be at the office on weekends anymore to care for the dogs. So, they have found a new home in—wait for it—Amsterdam! I can`t imagine how awestruck (and shivery!) the dogs are in their new climes. As humans we are well-equipped for digesting new locations, but dogs? From Africa to Amsterdam? At least Tinker had a life in England before, and was hopefully able to give Scrappy and Levi a primer of what to expect in their new Dutch territory.

Tinker's "Fetch Face"

When I think of all the dogs I’ve met over the years (shout-out to Maple who ate an entire block of Swiss cheese at a barbeque in Michigan, and Toblerone who I’ve known since a blue-eyed pup to a grey-faced senior gal)– their personalities and quirks shine brighter than some people I have known.

Of course, Bently and Mila carved out a giant place in my heart. I’m surprised Bently trusted me at all after I accidentally ran him through a just-poured sidewalk. The poor guy was in wet cement up to his elbows and I was too busy thinking all the construction crew were giving me cat calls. Meanwhile, they were giving me dog calls—i.e.-Get your dog out of our just-poured sidewalk! I was so in tune with Laura Branigan on my iPod, dodging yummy mummies in minivans carting their kids to school and road repair trucks that I missed the WET CEMENT signs. Whoops. Luckily we were close to McKee creek, otherwise Bently would have had cinder blocks as feet by the time we reached home again.

The mention of Mila still makes me weepy though. I miss her giraffe tongue licking my legs after a run like a popsicle. I miss her howling at the cookie jar several times a day (how could I resist?). I long for her thundering feet down the hallway folllowed by the flying leap  into bed with me in the morning. With closed eyes, I can see her in the backyard, whipping her Mad Butcher cow bone six feet in the air. Bones made her crazy, but pig ears were her cocaine. We once thought that we’d been robbed and ransacked. Flowerpots were tipped over, soil was tracked across the hardwood and area rug. Books were toppled from the shelves. It took a while to realize that Mila had snuck a pig’s ear into the house and was anxious to bury it while we were at work.


I miss Mila in the way that a sad song can make you instantly ache (cue up Jann Arden’s All the Days here). But I can’t turn the song off. When I see a lab retriever, Mila visits me every time. I see her vitality, her fierce protection of us from the coyote at Hayward. I laugh through tears to think of the time she came out of the Cultus woods dragging a rack of deer ribs behind her.

Agnes Sligh Turnball was bang-on when he said, “Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.”

I know there will be more dogs, and that makes me happy. I miss fur on my socks. I miss having a running partner who is willing to go out in the sloppiest of weather (the sloppier the better). Bently waited by the front door (so he wouldn’t miss an opportunity) and never asked how long we’d be gone or where we’d be going. He was simply happy to be in my company.

Gilda Radner once said, “I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive.”

To all the dogs I’ve loved before, thank you for letting me be your person.


 Special thanks to these pals: Boston, Prince (who rode in the back of the pick-up truck with me on my Aunt`s dill farm), Spook (who rode shotgun in my grandfather`s pick-up while I rode in the back), Brutus, Lucy (of Brantford), Lucy (in Jinja, Uganda), Sally (the whitest dog on the pig farm), Heidi (seen most often with a lampshade on her head), Cruise (despite general annoying behaviour that I will blame on the owner), Ali, Junior, Maverick, Reggie, Smoogles, Vanille, Maple, Toby, Nakina, Kennisis, Max & Chloe (American dog pals), Marlon Brando, Chester, Morgan, Abby, Molly, the 17 farm dogs that chased me on a daily basis on my bike commute down River Road and Doodlebug. And to those I haven`t met but have strong affection for—Kuluk (RIP), Extra in Nunavut, Mr. Wilson, Maddie, Midgie and Midi the wonder dog. And I know I’ve forgotten ten dear others, forgive me.

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” –Roger Caras

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

For Mila, The Very Best Dog in the World

Tonight the world seems a bit emptier. It seems unfair and sadness holds my throat in a chokehold.

Mila left us today, she left the backyard that she loved and all the pig’s ears and cow bones that she had strategically buried there. She left behind her best friend, Bently, who can only be wondering when she is planning on coming back. Where could she possibly go for so long alone? And why would she even consider going somewhere without him?

It was time. For the last few agonizing months we have been watching the progression of Mila’s cancer, attacking the vital spirit that just last year had her whipping around the Downes Bowl path with the speed and grace of a whippet. Last week she was bunny-hopping across the tide pools at White Rock beach. She was fetching the Kong with the enthusiasm of a puppy, and anxious for another go at it. On Friday she even put her lollygagging on pause to chase a black cat into a blackberry bush and had both of us tangled and bleeding  in the brambles.

But there was an undeniable tiredness in her face. If the walk or swim was too long, she felt it the next day and walked with a stiffness that made me wince. We agreed that as long as she had an appetite, she was content and without pain. The naturopath had her on a high-protein cancer-fighting diet: Vitamin C powder, cottage cheese, yogurt with acidophilus, pumpkin, chicken, rice, eggs and liver pate. Mila had never been happier, enjoying four meals a day and as many treats as she begged for.  We decided to make her last days the best, whatever she wanted, she deserved and usually got double amounts of. She merely had to look at the cookie jar, and I’d have my hand in there to satisfy her every whim. She even had half a cupcake on Gillian’s birthday, why not?

When she didn’t have the energy to walk around the block in the heat of July, it was easy to blame it on the humidity. Bently wasn’t even interested in pissing on his favourite fire hydrants and bushes. When Mila showed no interest in her breakfast, Wanda knew a decision had to be made, quickly, to let her go gracefully.

Gillian came home from work early. It’s a decision that never feels right. What if it’s just a temporary lapse? What if she just didn’t sleep well and is simply tired? What if the protein diet is working, and the tumor is shrinking? How can we be the experts on what Mila is feeling? How can we be the ones to decide that it’s her time?

She was supposed to tell us, but in a more obvious way. In a way that would convince each of us that she needed our help to go.

The vet assessed Mila thoroughly. Mila was even wagging her tail, stoic and eager to please, anxious for a pet, right to the end. The tumor that was the size of a grapefruit in May, had ballooned into a basketball. Mila would have felt like she was nine months pregnant, which explained her nervousness to jump up on the couch and bed, assuming her once-usual position. Her hind legs would give out, and her eyes often communicated how daunting the stairs looked.

We can only hope that Mila didn’t suffer. It would have been easy to selfishly decide to keep her alive longer, because that would be easier for the weepy humans she left behind.

My mind has been so full all night, of darling, comical and gentle images of Mila. When she swam across the river in White Rock and sunk up to her torso in the muddy bank—but refused to swim back. When she was yelled at by a woman in an inner tube at Hayward Lake, Mila’s head already deep in her bag of potato chips on shore.

I think of the time I was looking to buy a vehicle and pulled into a used car lot to check out a Jeep.  I had taken Bently and Mila to Clearbrook Park, and they were soggy, sleepy and content in the back of Wanda’s truck.  I told the dogs I’d be right back and walked around the Jeep, wrote down the mileage and other details posted on the windshield. I came back to the truck, shut the door, looked in the rear view mirror, and they were gone. The dogs were GONE. My heart was like a jackhammer, I felt like my skin was going to catch on fire. Why didn’t I lock the truck, what the hell was I thinking? They had been stolen out of the back hatch while I was looking at some stupid Jeep that I didn’t even want.


I saw two heads pop up, eyes like golf balls. “Jesus Christ!” They had been there all along, peacefully sleeping.  I unclicked my seatbelt and crawled across the back seat and practically made-out with the both of them.

I bet Mila is still laughing over that one.

Tonight, as she looks down on us all in her healthy, younger heavenly body, I wonder what she remembers best. I wonder what stories she will tell her new dog friends about her days in Abbotsford. Certainly, the other mutts will be envious when she starts going on about her beach life in Spain, and her years in California. When she describes Bently, and what a hunk of a golden retriever he is, the girl dogs will all be sighing.

Wanda is sure that her mom was there to welcome Mila today–and Mila would be happy for the undivided attention. She always acted like she was free to a good home, aimlessly walking off with other people and their dogs, walking up to the front stoops of neighbourhood houses. Halloween was the worst as she would leave out the door with every trick-or-treater that stopped by our place.

I’m glad we were able to take her to White Rock one last time. It was where she felt most alive. She’d have her nose up in the air miles from the ocean, inhaling her favourite place.

She has filled my heart and stretched it to a size that can never recoil, and now squeezed it with anguish.  Mila showed me the power of love between a dog and a human, the bond that knows no boundary, and the incurable ache that penetrates every blood cell and fragment of bone when they are no longer around.

I will miss her with every footstep, because she should be right behind me.

For Mila Bonneville, The Very Best Dog in the World

 July 5th 1998—August 24th 2009

I hope you had the time of your life.

Best friends, Bently & Mila

More Mila:

Categories: Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , | 10 Comments

63 Pounds

When renting a movie with my sister, Kiley, many factors have to be considered. She doesn’t like violence, subtitles, graphic sex or storylines that will leave her too emotional. Dax, my brother, a lover of sci-fi, muscle-bound boys and/or glossy special effects had his picky say in the choosing too when we were all together in March this year. I’m drawn to the dramas, clever dialogue, anything with Meryl Streep and socially conscious documentaries. When Kiley suggested Seven Pounds, Dax and I were leery. I was worried it would be too Disney, an over-the-top saccharine tale like Will Smith’s Pursuit of Happyness.

But Kiley really wanted to see it and besides, we were all sick of the free salty popcorn that we had been mindlessly eating for an hour while trying to find a movie we agreed upon.

Seven Pounds left us all feeling like we had been kicked in the throat. Kiley had to leave the house to calm herself down, walking around the block a few times to suck in the frozen Banff night air in big gulps. Years ago she left the screening of Meet Joe Black wailing. Again, she walked around the block with several bystanders concerned that someone she knew had just died.Maybe there had been a tragic accident? Nope, just a really, really sad movie for Kiley.

When Kiley returned from her block walk, her boyfriend Mark commented: “Seven pounds of sadness, eh Kiley?” No kidding. That movie left us with elephants sitting on our chests until the next morning.

But for the seven pounds of sadness that can rob us of sleep and make our hearts feel too big for our chest cavities, there has to be even more pounds of happiness. Like 63 pounds to be exact, and that’s where Mila comes in.

Walking to work this week I’ve had many miles to think about Mila and her antics. She is best known as a serial picnic raider. If I turn my back for a moment, she is like a picnic-seeking missile and goes in for the kill despite any verbal protests. Often she gets hand-outs for being so cute, but other times, the victims are less than charmed.

“That dog is eating our chips!” The woman yelled from her inner tube as she bobbed in the waters of Hayward Lake. Kiley and Mark had swum out to the floating logs and I had been preoccupied with Bently and his need to constantly fetch his Kong. I turned and Mila had her head buried deep in an unattended chip bag, with a trail of sandy paw prints all over the cranky inner tube woman’s picnic blanket. That didn’t go over so well.

Two winters ago we were walking along a logging trail and Mila disappeared behind us into the snowy woods. Wanda called her name until she was hoarse, and marched into the woods behind her. “She’s probably found shit.” As much as Mila loves potato chips, she is a bigger fan of shit—human, goose, cat, it’s all decadent to her.

Wanda emerged from the woods shaking her head. She was holding a rack of ribs in her hand. A hunter had obviously gutted a deer and left behind the bones—and the ribs for Mila. She was in a trance and we had to keep Mila on the leash for the rest of the walk, otherwise she would have been back to the bone pile. How she could smell frozen ribs deep in the woods is remarkable to me. But, she is a Labrador retriever, and they retrieve things like that by nature.

Mila is a fuss-pot though. Give her a piece of banana and she thinks it’s poison. She will take it tentatively with a curled lip, then let it drop to the floor (where Bently gives it the two second rule). Peppers, pineapple, avocado and celery are all treated in the same manner. However, she will never say no to almonds, Smarties, Swiss cheese or licking the remnants from a mixing bowl of ginger molasses cookie dough.

With a tongue like Gene Simmons, Mila is known for licking bare legs from ankles to mid-thigh. It’s a bit embarrassing when she insists on licking right up your thigh in public, but she does make me feel like her favourite popsicle after I come back from a run.

Walking Mila without treats to lure her along is nearly impossible. She needs goals, preferably edible ones. Wanda and I have often talked about how much easier it would be to walk her if we could put wheels on her feet. I will have Bently stretched out to the end of his retractable leash 15 feet ahead, and Mila the opposite way, 15 feet behind. At age 10, she still has the ability to pull my arm out of socket with one of her unexpected sniffs. Upon discovering a clump of mysterious dog crap or an abandoned Wendy’s Frosty cup, Mila throws on the brakes and then heaves all her body weight towards the desired object. I weigh more than twice what she does, but when Mila needs an up close and personal sniff, that’s where we go. Sometimes we will try scare tactics like telling Mila that the pound is coming—“look, there’s the truck! Hurry Mila, it’s the dog-catcher!” She doesn’t even look up. I’m sure she’d be happy for the free ride.

Last spring when we were hiking the Reservoir trail at Hayward Lake in Mission, Mila caught a whiff of the wild and went stir-crazy. A coyote appeared at the edge of the woods and scampered off. Bently cowered with his ears pinned back and retreated to the safe spot between Wanda’s legs. Mila, our fearless protector, wouldn’t stop barking until we got back to the vehicle. In the face of danger, Mila would be our hero. That is, if she wasn’t busy digging.

At Teapot Hill we almost lost Mila in a bear den. We had just reached the snowline and Mila tiptoed off the trail and stuck her snout under a fallen log. The snow collapsed and revealed a larger hole. I laughed as she squeezed her head in, dirt and snow flying out behind her paws. She pushed in further, and I stopped laughing when all I could see was her tail. Wanda managed to grab the tip of her tail and pulled her out against her will. Ahh, our adventurer, Mila. She’s given me a few grand-scale panic attacks.

I thought I lost Mila for good the year I was looking for a truck. I had taken the dogs to Clearbrook park and stopped at a used car lot when I saw a Jeep for five grand. I pulled over on the side street to check out the vehicle and the Jetta parked on the other side of the building. The Jeep had over 250,000 km and the Jetta was red, so I didn’t look very long. I got back in the Santa Fe and looked in the rear view mirror. The dogs were gone. They weren’t in the back of the SUV. My skin felt like it was going to catch fire. I wanted to throw up. Someone had stolen the dogs right out of the vehicle!

“GUYS!” I yelled (the loudest I’ve ever yelled in my life). Tears fell automatically out of my eyes.

Their furry heads popped up at the same time, alarmed. I think I said Jesus Christ over 10 times, followed by 10 Hail Mary’s and crawled in the back of the SUV to hug them. I had locked the truck, so I don’t know how or why I thought they had been stolen. But, my heartbeat didn’t slow for days after that scare.

The trouble with Mila is that she is free to a good home. Or, that’s how she presents herself. I’ll be walking down the street with her and someone will open the front door of their house and Mila will turn on the spot to head towards them. If a car door opens on the street she is ready to climb in the back seat. On Hallowe’en night, she disappears with every goblin and witch that comes to the door, sauntering off nonchalantly. When we pass other dog walkers on the path, Mila turns and starts following them. It sometimes gives me a complex…

I suppose Mila has a wandering spirit. Born in Los Angeles, she has traveled more than most humans—frequenting the Gatwick airport on her flights to Spain. She came to Abbotsford to retire from her jet-setter lifestyle, and has enriched all our lives in countless ways. Dinner doesn’t seem right unless I have the weight of her head on my leg as she sits under the table. On the rare night that she is being slightly obedient, she will lay beside the table—but if I take too long to eat, she will slap her paw on the hardwood as a friendly reminder that she is patiently waiting for plate licks.

She sheds a ridiculous amount, giving the Dyson vaccuum the ultimate challenge. I could sell Mila fur coats in the winter with the quantity of fur I suck up. Wanda will often tell me not to pet her inside the house because she is shedding so much. When she shakes, it’s like an overturned snow globe. When I brush her and run my hands vigorously over her body afterwards, I always say, “look Mila, it’s snowing!” I’ve slowly eliminated black items from my wardrobe, as well as corduroy and fleece zip-ups. All of these act like Velcro for Mila’s fur.

But it’s more than her fur that I’m attached too. Mila is deep under my skin. Those dreamboat eyes of hers get me every time. She is lying at my feet right now, deep in sleep. I know that as soon as I ask her if she wants to go for a walk that she will catapult up and be tripping over me as she walks on the back of my flip-flops down the stairs.

I hope she proves the experts wrong. This sassy American gal has more than three months in her. And I hope she raids every picnic we come across this summer.

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | 1 Comment

Hanging On, Letting Go

When I read Marley & Me a few years ago, I was prepared for a weepy ending. What I didn’t expect was that I would be sobbing for the last thirty pages in that pathetic way that humans can cry—all gasps and snot and shaking shoulders. I warn everyone I see reading that book in public to save the ending for the privacy of their home. I can’t imagine watching the movie version—it would be like subjecting myself to Beaches all over again. You know Hillary’s going to die and you’re left with the sensation of a soccer ball stuck in your throat from the moment she meets bold and brassy CC Bloom under the boardwalk, minutes into the movie. By the time Bette sings “Wind Beneath My Wings,” I’m emotionally spent.

And here I am at the last thirty pages again, but it’s not Marley, it’s Mila, our ten-year-old yellow lab. The news that she had three months to live was like a sucker-punch that has winded me for days. She’s only ten, god, I’ve known labs that have lived until 15 with great spunk and vitality.

We noticed her slowing down, and that was to be expected. Mila has always been a lollygagger, poking about the dandelions and getting absorbed in a sniff. Her back legs were getting progressively weaker though and jumping into the back of our Santa Fe became an issue. This was easily solved—we bought a ramp at PetSmart that allowed her to walk up her very own red carpet into the back of the truck with ease. We bought her a step stool so she could climb into bed at night as well, without a daunting jump to intimidate her.

Just when we began to seriously worry about her getting older, Mila would rip around the backyard like a puppy, charging at Bently, our golden retriever, full-tilt. At Hayward lake, she would make ambitious swims out into the frigid January waters to retrieve the rubber Kong, and we cast our worries aside. Clearly, Mila was going to live forever. We smiled to see her nipping at Bently’s heels on the Downes Bowl trails, leaping over fallen trees like an agile bunny. Her perfect triangle lab ears would be parallel to the ground, like an airplane coming in for landing. When Mila was three she had pins placed in both her legs to reattach her hamstrings. Her running gait has always been a bit comical because of this. With her restricted mobility, it was like she was bounding along with her hind legs working in tandem, like in a potato sack race.

Three weeks ago she began throwing up on a daily basis. We could justify most of it—the bones from the Mad Butcher, the neighbour’s cat’s shit, goose crap at Albert Dyck park. But the morning she didn’t have the will or strength to make it up the stairs triggered alarm. She stopped at the landing and seemed to be shivering. Her back legs trembled and as I stroked her she lowered her body to the floor and began breathing erratically. I thought for sure she was going to die in that moment. She closed her eyes and heaved and panted. My ribs ached from holding back the tears.

The next day she was flipping a pig’s ear around the yard like a pup. She was in every garden, digging her way to China, spraying dirt and just-planted seedlings across the lawn. Her snout was filthy, as though she had dunked her nose in hot cocoa powder.

Wanda took her to the vet who said she had vaginitis again. The lumps on her torso were mobile, which was a good sign. She was given another prescription, but she was still throwing up and emptying ever y water bowl that was set down on the floor. We wondered if she was diabetic with her unquenchable thirst. I worried about renal failure.

We took her to a naturopath next who immediately discovered a large mass in her abdomen. The tumour was apparently as big as a grapefruit—this would explain her vomiting. The growth was probably pressing against her stomach. The naturopath recommended x-rays, and the next morning Mila was scheduled for surgery.

She left the house in the morning with Gillian as though she knew.  This was the same dog who would run in the opposite direction when you called her name to take her to daycare in the morning. We all felt better knowing what the problem was, and that in a few hours, the tumour would be removed and Mila could begin healing.

When I came home from work, Wanda was in the backyard, lying in the grass with Mila. Her shaved abdomen had six inches of staples along it, and she was heavily drugged on morphine. They couldn’t remove the tumour, and it was cancerous.  It had engulfed her kidney and wrapped around her vena cava, a critical blood supply, and was so invasive that it had grown into the muscles of her back as well. It was inoperable.

The vet gave her three months to live, maximum. Three months? I watched Mila struggle to get up and try to squat to pee, but having no control over her voluntary muscles she would squat and shake until she gave up. We talked about putting her to sleep, because it seemed like maybe we were keeping her alive for us. An appointment was made for the following night, and the vet said she could do a home visit the following day if we preferred that.

Time seemed to stop and accelerate at the same time. I had that Green Day song in my head: “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right, I hope you’ve had the time of your life.”

I think she has had the time of her life. Mila is the only dog I’ve known that’s had her very own passport. She has lived in Spain and California and her love of the ocean is obvious when we drive to White Rock. Just as we turn off the highway, Mila’s nose is raised in the air—she smells the salt water long before the rest of us do. She grunts and moans and is practically talking by the time we find a parking spot near the beach. When we let her out of the truck, she’s like a bull rushing out of a pen.  She gallops to the ocean and is the first one in, her body alive and young, her memory taking her back to those sunny days in Spain and Cali.

My hope is that we can take her back to White Rock. I want her to be around in the fall when we go to the Island to the dog-friendly bed and breakfast, Cougar’s Crag. She loved that place too. Hell, last year she took off on us on French beach and nimbly climbed up a rock face like a mountain goat to get to the ocean. At Teapot Hill in Chilliwack, she pulled the same stunt, choosing her own way up the mountain on loose scree with barely a foothold. We didn’t breathe until she reached the top—and we couldn’t call her back because coming back down her ‘trail’ would have been impossible.

On her last visit to the naturopath, Wanda was told that sometimes just “opening up a dog can let the evil air out.” She thought the tumour felt smaller. She recommended whey protein powder, Vitamin C, egg whites and acidophilis. There’s no question that Mila has been thoroughly enjoying her breakfast and dinner entrees of rice and salmon, stewed beef and gravy, chicken and broth and pills tucked into liver pate and cheese. Bently has also reaped the benefits of the new diet as we have to ensure that he gets proper attention too, and that comes in the form of pate and steak hand-outs for him too.

And this is who I worry about the most. Mila is Bently’s best friend in the world. He knows something is up, but it’s all a bit puzzling. They wrestled for the first time in months yesterday, and Wanda and I were blinded with tears. Later, when we took them for a walk around the neighbourhood, I turned around with Mila just a block from home as Bently and Wanda carried on. Mila looked back at Bently every three steps and it was sheer torture. I think the dogs wisely know that one day they will separate and not see each other again, and like us, they just don’t know when that awful moment might happen.

If Mila needs to go sooner, if she needs to leave this earth to be comfortable before three months, we will help her do that. We will help her go.  I hope that she slips away on her own in her sleep, gently, full of dream. Dreaming of White Rock with the ocean air in her nose, with the taste of her favourite treat, chocolate-glazed Timbits, on her tongue. Dreaming with our arms tightly around her, and Bently’s wet nose against hers.

As Gillian says, she will find one of us in her next life. But I want her here in this one, longer. Three months? I am devastated to be away for six weeks of that three months. Every day with Mila is precious. I can’t begin to think of the emptiness in this house without her. She has given us such incredible love, provided much laughter and beautiful company that the loss will be palpable for a lifetime. Mila, the very best dog in the world, is an integral part of us. And even if it is her time to go, she will remain a part of us for always.

Mila, I hope you ‘ve had the time of your life.

Please hug your dog, the days that you can are never long enough.

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , | 8 Comments

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