Animals, humans, and Yellowstone National Park

photo courtesy of
photo courtesy of

In the wake of the story about a three-year-old who breached the barrier at the Cincinnati Zoo last weekend, resulting in the euthanization of a 17-year-old west lowland gorilla named Harambe, a video surfaced this week of a woman at Yellowstone National Park being butted by an elk after she tried to take a photo and got too close for comfort.

It’s one of several recent stories highlighting the problem of adult humans – grown ups who should know better – interfering with the wildlife. Like this lady, who walked up to a massive bison and started petting it like a big dog. I’m not sure what she planned to do if the bison got up, but I suspect the family vacation photos would have taken a decidedly more sinister air.

In 2015, a young girl was injured while posing for a photo near a bison when it “lifted its head, took a couple steps and gored her”. It was just one of several bison attacks last summer. Last week, the Montana Standard wrote about a woman who got out of a car to take a photo of a mother bear and her cubs, not realizing – or, more likely, not caring – that a mama bear protecting her babies is one mean mother.

Or maybe they’re all vying for a Darwin Award.

Not everyone who interferes is taking a selfie, but they can cause just as many problems. We all remember a few weeks ago when well-meaning tourists Shamash Kassam and his son Shaquille took a baby bison to the ranger station in an attempt to rescue it, after seeing it struggling to cross a river and then standing alone and shivering on the side of the road, the herd nowhere in sight. The bison was later euthanized by rangers, who claimed the park has no facilities to care for it. That story caused a firestorm across social media that I’m still trying to sort out.

This week Kassam, who is a farmer in Africa and so isn’t completely ignorant about animals, was fined $230 and ordered to make a $500 donation to the park. (Side note: is it still a donation if you’re forced to pay it? Just curious.) He said in an ABC News interview that he’s seen poachers kill mothers and leave the baby behind, and he assumed this was a similar situation in which the mother abandoned the bison. With no cell service to call a ranger, they decided the best course of action was to take the bison to the ranger station themselves.

He meant well, but when asked by the reporter what he’d do today in the same situation, Kassam replied, “In Yellowstone Park we would just leave it, because they say let the nature take the course.”

And that’s the point I’m trying to make.

I don’t know if we humans are ignorant about wild animals or arrogant in believing we’re superior so the animals will thus bend to our will. Or maybe it’s an even more dangerous combination of the two. But animals in Yellowstone are living in their natural environment, roaming and eating and hunting and copulating and giving birth and killing each other and just trying to live their damned lives without interference from humans who want to get a good photo for their Christmas card.

I imagine at the end of the day the bison and elk and deer and bear all meet up and compare notes: “Did you see the idiot with the camera trying to take a picture while I ate dinner?” “How ’bout the dummy trying to pet me? What a moron.” “I wanted so badly to eat that guy wearing the man purse, but Marge held me back.”

As Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the National Park Service, told ABC News, “We would much rather be doing interpretive programs and answering questions about that mountain, that lake, than writing tickets and hauling people to the hospital.”

Translation: because grown adults can’t control themselves, park rangers have to babysit them.

That the animals at Yellowstone aren’t mauling tourists on a daily basis speaks to their tolerance of our obsessive need to encroach on their privacy. It’s a gift they give to us.

Do them all a favor: Don’t pet the animals.

A gorilla, a boy, and life in the balance

Screenshot from the video of Harambe and the child who fell into the gorilla enclosure.
Screenshot from the video of Harambe and the child who fell into the gorilla enclosure.

By now you’ve probably heard the story about Harambe, the 17 year old west lowland gorilla who was shot by zoo keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo after a small child fell into the gorilla enclosure. I caught bits and pieces of the story over the holiday weekend, but it wasn’t until this morning that I was able to devote some attention to the matter.

I finally saw the video.

Originally, I didn’t want to touch this story with a 10 foot pole, mostly because I didn’t think that I could add anything to the conversation, which was getting more emotionally charged by the minute. I get enough hate mail when I take people to task for not obeying the leash law.

Another reason is because it’s not a simple issue. Each thread you pull unravels another thread and another and another, and before you know it you’re pondering everything from what constitutes parental neglect to the ethics of zoos in general to the disappearing gorilla habitat. I didn’t feel like I could blast off a quick post and do the story justice.

Then I was asked to write about it and so here I am, pondering all of those issues, but mostly wondering what transpires between man and beast when they come face to face and only one can survive the encounter.

The two minute video I watched was disturbing, but I was also surprised that it wasn’t the violent, bloody footage I’d expected to see after hearing the news bites all weekend. It seemed the boy faced far more danger from drowning than being thrown about by a gorilla.

I kept going back, not to the screams of the crowd; not to the horror that poor mother surely suffered watching her child being dragged through the water; not to the split second decisions required by zoo staff about whether to tranquilize or kill the animal in what they deemed was a life threatening situation.

What I kept coming back to were the moments when Harambe and the boy were sitting quietly, the gorilla blocking the boy from view of the screaming spectators, the boy’s stunned gaze fixed firmly on the majestic beast, the two barely moving as they summed up the situation, small child who wanted to swim with the gorillas, gorilla unsure what to do with this small child who had dropped into his front yard.

Toddler-sized awe focused on 400-plus pounds of raw power. Wild animal gently touching tiny human.

Yes, there is horror and anger and uproar at what ensued, and a little boy is in the hospital and an endangered animal is dead. But there is also mystery and, if I can be so bold, a beauty at what did not happen.

A beast did not kill a child.

The majestic creature, who never asked to be put on display, encountered a wee toddler, who could not resist the temptation to breach the barrier.

I let myself imagine that, in the chaos and confusion of the humans above, perhaps for a moment or two in the gorilla enclosure below the world stopped for Harambe and the child, and nothing existed but boy and animal, life and death, an ending for one and a new beginning for the other, and for a few seconds neither knowing which would experience which.

As we know, in a “wild animal vs humans” showdown like this, when two lives are at stake and no one can predict the animal’s next move, a choice must be made and be made quickly. And the human survives.

The humans had caged an animal and deemed him dangerous, and then prepared for the scenario just like this, when he would come face to face with a defenseless human.

What choice did zoo keepers have? When the child breeched the barrier, zoo officials immediately called the gorillas out of the enclosure. The two females complied. Harambe chose to stay with the boy. Even if Harambe was acting without malice, which appears to be the case, his sheer size could have accidentally killed the child. Action must be swift and sure; no time to negotiate a hostage exchange.

The alternative would have been to leave the toddler in there and see whether the gorilla snuggled him or tore him from limb to limb. If there is a person out there who thinks that was an option, please direct your hate mail in his direction.

I prefer to imagine that Harambe took stock of the situation and understood the inevitable outcome. Perhaps, I imagine, he sheltered the boy so that he could speak to him, living spirit to living spirit, assuring the child that he would be all right, that help would come, but needing the time to impart some raw animal wisdom of the ages that the child could carry with him through life.

Because this small child would live to tell the story of how he had been touched by a gorilla.

Read the official statement from the Cincinnati Zoo.

To kill or not to kill spiders

A spider nest in the blackberry patch

Out in the yard this morning, I was watering plants and feeding the birds when I noticed a nest of spider eggs in my blackberry patch.

My first thought was to get the diatomaceous earth so I could get rid of the nest. It’s right by where I walk, right where the dogs cut through the bushes to come into the house. The likelihood was very high that someone, probably Bailey or Bandit, would brush up against the nest and dozens of spiders would get a free ride into the house on dog fur.

Diatomaceous earth – or D-earth, for short – is a naturally occurring material that consists of fossilized remains of diatoms. Essentially, silica from dead marine sediments. It kills insects by drying them up. It’s safe, natural, and my go-to product to kill insects.

But just as quickly as I’d decided to get rid of the spider nest, the reality hit me that these were living creatures, and living in nature. The spider hadn’t built the nest in my kitchen or in my car (which happened last summer).

My general rule of thumb is that if bugs are inside the house (or my car), they should be prepared to meet their maker. But outside, I generally leave them alone. Who am I to kill the spiders in their own home, just because they give me the willies?

That’s when I saw the nest was moving. The spiders were hatching, right in front of my eyes. Life coming forth into the world. Good grief, so many spiders! And crawling in every direction! And so fast! I could feel my skin start to crawl.

Spiders with the right to live, but also the potential to make my life decidedly difficult. As in, webs all over the yard, dogs crawling with insects, spiders in my hair.

So do I dust with the insecticide or not?

It feels hypocritical. I swat flies and mosquitoes. I step on ants in the kitchen. I kill mites in the chicken coop. I kill fleas and ticks to keep my dogs healthy and comfortable. (I hate using chemicals on the dogs and cat. I’ve tried dozens of natural remedies over the years to repel the insects, but after a major flea infestation that took months to clear up and left one dog and the cat with major skin sores due to flea allergies, I now treat with chemicals. The lesser of two evils and all that.)

My point is that I kill stuff all the time and never feel bad about it. Why did I even hesitate this morning?

I wonder if it’s simply the fact that more and more I’ve begun to feel like a part of a bigger picture, less “man controls the world” and more “man is one particle of the intertwined universe”. What if this nest was like Horton’s dust ball, filled with an entire world I can’t see or hear?

I stood there with the D-earth and pondered the spider nest, baby arachnids hatching and scurrying to the four corners of the blackberry patch. I’ll leave my decision about what I actually did a mystery. But tell me: what would you have done?


Kids, BB guns, and shooting birds for sport

When I left the house at noon, Mrs. Robin had made great progress on the nest.
Last spring, I watched Mrs. Robin build her nest and lay her eggs, and then followed their progress until the fledglings left the nest. It’s hard for me to imagine any of them being shot for sport.

I was visiting with friends recently when one of the kids – we’ll call him Joey – came from behind the house to ask a question.

“Dad, can I shoot a woodcock?” The youngster, about 10 years old, had a BB gun and had apparently spent the morning shooting birds.

His dad told him there’s an actual season for shooting woodcocks, so no, he couldn’t kill one. So Joey went back to shooting robins and grackles and sparrows. When I asked Joey how many birds he’d shot that day, he said eight. When I asked him what he did with the dead birds, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I take my picture with them.”

“That’s it?” I asked. “You don’t eat them or stuff them for display or something?”

He shrugged again and gave me a look like I’d just asked a really stupid question.

Truth be told, I’m not a fan of shooting birds – or deer or bears or fox or coyote or any other living creature, at least not for sport. If you’re using an animal for food, that’s a “circle of life” kind of thing and, I think, a different discussion.

But to shoot an animal to hang its head on the wall or take a trophy photo and leave the carcass where it landed? Not a fan.

Of course, I didn’t grow up in the country, so whenever I question shooting birds or squirrels, I get a lot of flack (often with eye rolls) from people who did about how I don’t understand country living.

Maybe I don’t. There’s a part of me that’s bothered by a kid who kills a bird for fun. Is that a sign of dangerous behavior to come down the road? Or maybe it’s only the kids who pull the wings off flies who end up serial killers?

Then again, Atticus Finch said these immortal words to Jem in “To Kill A Mockingbird”:

“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

There’s a greater analogy in there, but still, the cinematic model of morality was giving the go ahead to kill blue jays. Once upon a time, it was a rite of passage for a kid to get a BB gun and shoot targets, tin cans and other stuff, critters included.

So the question I’m left struggling with today: is it OK for kids to shoot birds with BB guns? Where do you draw the line between sport and cruelty – and is there even a line to identify? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And if you want to see the photos from last spring of Mrs. Robin and her babies, you can check them out here.

(This originally appeared at

How wolves changed the geography of Yellowstone Park

Have you ever considered how intertwined living creatures are? When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park, they changed not only the wolf population – but affected the deer, which affected the trees, which affected the bears, which affected the beavers, which affected the river, which affected … on and on and on.

The narration for this video is from a 2013 TedTalk, “For more wonder, rewild the world,” by George Monbiot. The full video goes into more detail about rewilding, including an explanation of how whales, who eat plankton and krill, actually help the growth of plankton and krill … whalers argue that by killing whales they’ll increase the fish population, it backfired. Fascinating stuff and, to me anyway, proof that God created the world in perfect balance, a balance we humans really need to respect more.

Monibot is an English writer and journalist who writes about environmental and political topics, especially the topic of “rewilding”. His latest book is “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding.”

Writing, technology and the beauty of the pen

I’m an avid scribbler. I’m constantly making notes in small notebooks tucked in my purse, on scrap paper and receipts, and when paper can’t be found, I write on my hand.

I joke a lot about how I hate technology, but that’s not necessarily true. I hate the way technology has become a crutch for most Americans, replacing our own ability to think, to solve problems, and to record thoughts and ideas.

So I love this TEDTalk by Master Penman Jake Weidmann, in which he extolls not only the virtues of the pen but the ways writing increase our historical, intellectual and creative literacy.

I was taken by his story about Platt Rogers Spencer, who in the 19th century created the Spencerian Script – when he was just 13 years old. Spencer believed that God had instilled beauty in nature, so by taking cues from nature he could instill the beauty of God in his penmanship. This is a kid after my own heart.

But the most compelling part of the video is when Weidmann talks about the way the tactile movements of writing with a pen actually engages the brain and helps ingrain the information in our memory in ways that typing doesn’t do. He makes the case that children who write actually learn more, adding:

“Schools are leaning all the time, more and more so, on technology to help move kids down the conveyor belt of the educational system. But what we need to do is be a good steward of both and listen to what our technology is telling us and pick up the pen and keep writing. You see, it is not technology that is the direct enemy of the pen. It is our dependence on technology. And the greater we grow our dependency on technology, what we may soon find is that we’ve created the most technologically advanced way of creating illiteracy.”

God has created our minds and bodies to work in perfect harmony, and the simple tool called the pen can bring it all into motion.

Make sure you watch the video all the way through to see some examples of Weidmann’s incredible artwork.

Bats in the Belfry

The essentials of bat whacking: gloves, a tennis racket, and a bag to dispose of the body.
The essentials of bat whacking: gloves, a tennis racket, and a bag to dispose of the body.

It’s midnight and I’m lying in bed, reading a book, when all of the sudden I hear the pitter patter of little feet scurrying in the ceiling above my head.

Dammit. There’s something in the attic.

Bandit sits up and cocks his head to listen, then jumps down from the bed to follow the sound around the room, eyes fixed on the ceiling.

Great. It sounds like maybe two somethings.

I call to my  husband, “David! Something’s in the attic!!”

He’s just gotten home from a long day at work, just taken a shower, and isn’t interested in whatever phantom noise I’m panicked about. Spring usually brings a procession of bugs and spiders and weirdo beetles I’m always calling for him to kill. No emergency, he thinks. I wait. The scurrying continues.

“There’s something in the attic!” I call.

When darling husband comes into the room, he cocks his head to listen, wearing that “there’s nothing there” impatient frown … and then he hears it too.

There’s a critter line dancing right above our heads. Continue reading “Bats in the Belfry”

Mrs. Robin’s babies

The first of Mrs. Robin's eggs have hatched!
The first of Mrs. Robin’s eggs have hatched!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the struggle Mrs. Robin had building her nest and the lesson she showed in perseverance, and over on my blog at Patheos, I’ve been blogging about Mrs. Robin and her eggs. (You can read the posts at Patheos (with photos) by clicking here.)

But since today was so exciting I wanted to share the news here, too: two of the eggs have hatched! I found an eggshell in the grass this afternoon, a shell that hadn’t been there earlier in the day. So I snuck up into the garage attic to peek out the window at the nest. Mrs. Robin flew away just long enough for me to snap a couple of photos. One looks as if it had just emerged from the egg.

I’m so glad we get to follow along with the miraculous birth of her babies! Stay tuned for more photos – Mrs. Morning Dove is also sitting on eggs!

50 thoughts on turning 50: #3 The butterfly still flaps its wings

Butterfly in my backyard
When a butterfly slaps its wings in Brazil, there’s a tornado in Texas. Does that mean the butterfly shouldn’t fly?

I was having a conversation this week with a women who was telling me about her dream job. Not just a job, but a passion, the thing she’d like to do, in a perfect world, with no obstacles.

I won’t go into details, since I don’t think she expected to be the subject of a blog post. But in a nutshell, all of the pieces for what she wants to do are in place. Not just theory, in practice. She’s got things lined up and ready to go; all she has to do is pull the trigger and bam! She’s off and running.

And yet we talked for quite a long time about why she insists she can’t do it. For every obstacle she needs to consider, she already has a solution. Even if she only meets half of her goal, she’ll more than cover her costs and get to do something she really wants to do.

And yet there was something holding her back.

I was an outsider hearing the story for the first time, but I was struck by the similarity to some of my own dreams and plans, things I’ve thought about doing, wanted to do, and then didn’t do.

I had good reasons, just like this woman. At least, that’s what I thought. But when the layers were peeled back, the reality was that the only thing holding me back was me.

I’d say we don’t have the money, but every day people accomplish great things without money. I’d say I don’t have the time, but there’s always time for things we really want to do. I’d say I [insert excuse here] but in the end, all I had were excuses.

Because here’s the real reason I don’t do what I want to do: I don’t want to upset the apple cart. Continue reading “50 thoughts on turning 50: #3 The butterfly still flaps its wings”