It has been raining hard for several hours – not your typical summer drizzle, but a 40-day, 40-night special. Tonight there will be no reading of newspapers, no fidgeting with the bills, no dining in a cozy Cape Cod restaurant. Instead, I will drive the amphibious assault craft, for this is the night that has called forth the toad and the toader.
I was conscripted for the work by a good friend who is studying the eastern spadefoot toad, a creature about whom very little is known. Our ignorance of the spadefoot is not due to a lack of interest, but to the peculiar life style of this biological relic. It is more closely related to ancient lost tribes of amphibians than it is to any living family of frogs and toads. The spadefoot apparently spends the great majority of its life below ground, emerging only on wet nights, probably to feed, and on the wettest to breed.
The spadefoot is equipped with a hard and pointed tubercle on each of its hind feet, which is its “spade” for burrowing into dry soil. A descending spadefoot takes with it a lungful of air, burrowing to a depth as great as three feet, and remains there until called out by a summer downpour. It is thought this self-entombment can last as long as several years. On one breath.
The toader and I have been out before. There has been a full cup of rainy days this summer. We saw spadefoots up and down the Outer Cape, scattered and solitary, but out and about. The problem with these earlier forays was the lack of a breeding rain.
The spadefoot only breeds in temporary pools and puddles, because they are fish-free. The pool or puddle has to be deep enough to allow time for the transformation from egg to tadpole to toad before the nursery evaporates. Although many breeding attempts end in dehydrated failure, the spadefoot has the miraculous ability to make the transit from egg to toad in two weeks, clambering out onto land with its tail still evident, ready for a life of mostly sleep.
Driving the amphibious assault craft is not an easy task, because it is on the road itself where the toads are first found. The driver is always in danger of squashing the project, and of presenting a hazard to other drivers on dark and rainy nights. The toader and I agreed from the start that the main highway, Route 6, was off-limits to the study. Only on the side roads can this modern assay of ancient urge be effectively and safely employed.
The Outer Cape is so small and the road system so extensive that crossing asphalt barrens has become part of the journey for the toad venturing from upland woods to bottomland puddle. For some reason, both the common Fowler’s toad and the rare spadefoot halt on the asphalt. Maybe they sit soaking up the surface rainwater, or are disoriented by the flatness and hardness of the roadbed in what is otherwise a journey of humic descent. Maybe they sense something alien, or are stymied by a silence in the genetic code. Whatever, there they sit on the road, looking like small stones, or too often, like medium-size pancakes.
“Toad!” shouts the toader, and I bring the craft to a stop. It is a spadefoot. Down go the windows, in spite of the rain, and we listen. But the road toad is not the quarry. It is the indicator. We are listening for the breeding pool.
The spadefoot has the strangest mating call of all our toads and frogs, but we rarely get to hear it. This call has been described variously as “the coarse low-pitched complaint of a young crow” and “a deafening, agonizing roar, hoarse and woeful.” The toader and I had listened to recordings of this call, and were prepared.
We had been prepared all spring and summer. After hundreds of miles of stopping for toads and toad-like rocks, sticks, and oak leaves, we wondered whether we would ever hear the call in the wild. So far, all we had gotten for rolling down the windows at each spadefoot sighting were rain-splattered laps. But this night of heavy rain – possibly the best spadefoot breeding rain since the launching of Noah’s Ark – had potential, and did not let us down.
The voices of what turned out to be three lovesick spadefoot males made their way up an embankment through the sheeting sound of the rain. (For what it’s worth, I’ll add my own description of the spadefoot mating call: it sounds like a sick duck.) We worked our way down the embankment and found the toads clinging to rushes in a pool maybe six inches deep. With a flashlight we were able to watch this lonesome trio, the vocal sac expanding to three times the size of the head before each croak. The sudden release of air caused their little bodies to bob up and down on the submerged rushes.
We returned three days later to see if the male spadefoots had found romance. But instead of finding eggs or tadpoles, we found a waterless mudhole. Somewhere up the hill, the toads had snuggled themselves once again into the Cape’s soft earth, to endure what likely may be another fruitless summer. There they will wait out the seasons and the years as they have done since parting with the ancients. They spend so little time on the earth and so much time in it, the greatest threat to spadefoots is not a dried-up pool or the asphalt barrens, but the unearthing of their foundations for our own.
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.
“Where is my oasis? Too far from
here for me to crawl with these
dead legs, refusing to co-operate
Hands and fingers clawing uselessly
through the grains of sand…”
— Kiera Woodhull, Chaos of the Mind
The late-November air warmed quickly as Carianne Campbell, landscape restoration program manager at Sky Island Alliance, spoke to our group of volunteers.
“We’re here in the Whetstone Mountains to monitor McGrew Spring, which is located at Kartchner Caverns State Park. In Arizona and throughout the desert southwest, springs serve as vital rest and re-fueling areas for migratory wildlife such as birds, butterflies, and mammals.”
Carianne paused and pointed eastward toward the distant cottonwood-lined course of the San Pedro River. “Scientists have long acknowledged the critical role of rivers and streams in desert areas. As a result, watercourses and riparian areas have been intensely studied. However, springs have been somewhat overlooked. In addition, previous monitoring efforts didn’t use a standardized protocol that would allow us to discern changes at individual sites or assess and compare the relative importance of each site. With your help, we’re embarking on this exciting new project.”
After a short question-and-answer period, Carianne asked us to introduce ourselves. There was Nikki Miscione, a Kartchner Caverns employee, and Carol Jelinek, a Kartchner volunteer. Stuart Brody was originally from upstate New York—a fellow snowbird who visited nearby Patagonia… and ended up staying. Rosemary Schiano was a wildlife biologist and tracker who leaves Colorado each winter to explore these borderlands. As for me, I’m an avid birder and retired hydrologic-biologic technician who, together with my wife, spend the winter months about 40 miles from Kartchner.
We stuffed a measuring tape, other equipment, data forms, a small bucket, and short section of plastic pipe into our daypacks and set out down the trail. As we hiked, Carianne identified many of the trailside plants and expanded on the goals of the project, “Springs are keystone ecosystems in the Sky Island Region and are known to be biodiversity hotspots.”
I reflected on the concept of desert springs as keystone ecosystems. Although I was familiar with both the critical role of water in the desert and the concept of keystone species such as wolf, beaver, and Red-naped Sapsucker, the term keystone ecosystem was new to me. But it made sense, given what I knew about the definition of keystone species and their disproportionate influence on surrounding landscapes. Beavers and their dam-building activities, for example, slacken water velocity, raise the water table, and expand wetlands. Their beneficial activities that reduce water’s erosive power and provide a measure of flood control have all-too-often become clear only after they’ve been removed from a watershed. In addition, beaver ponds increase suitable areas for water-loving plants like willow and cottonwood to become established, thus helping to improve water quality, stabilize stream banks, and benefit a wide range of wildlife.
I gazed through the heat waves to the highest point in the Whetstones: 7,711-foot Apache Peak. Although they were little more than distant green splotches, ponderosa pines near the summit testified to this sky island’s ability to milk moisture from passing clouds, with a diverse mosaic of plant communities—desert to pine forest—being the result. Witnessing such diversity brought to mind Roger Tory Peterson’s words from his travelogue Wild America, published in 1955. Although he was referring to the nearby Chiricahua Mountains, the description rings true for the Whetstones as well:
There they were, in the crystal morning light, rising like a massive blue island from the sea of the desert. And an island it was, in truth, part of an archipelago composed of a dozen similar ranges. They are as much a true archipelago as the Azores or Hawaii, but no surf washes their talused bases; instead the desert, dry and shimmering, besieges their foothills and sweeps across the flats to the next range, twenty, thirty, or forty miles away. And like islands, their climate, plants, their animals are as different from those of their surroundings as though they were isolated by the sea.
Birders and naturalists have long known that southeastern Arizona’s sky islands’ reputation as a biological crossroads and incredible melting pot of diversity is also due to their ecotonal location at the intersection of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, plus being where the southern Rocky Mountains meet Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.
Our hike brought us to a gate, a corral, and a tall, cylindrical metal water tank—range improvements built by cattle ranchers. Stealthily, we approached the tank, startling six Mourning Doves into flight. The tall grass just upslope of the tank was lush by Arizona standards and the damp, squishy meadow suggested that McGrew Spring lay just upslope. After several more minutes of hiking, we reached a narrow rivulet of water. We paused at the upper end of the grassy area, where surface water surrendered to the thirsty desert, percolating into the soil. Large mesquite and netleaf hackberry trees provided shade as we walked beside the narrow channel of water.
We pulled measuring tapes, cameras, pencils, and data forms from our daypacks. Item by item, we collected data, such as the aquatic insects, butterflies, and birds at the site. Long ago, the spring had been dug out to create a small pond, which we measured to be 25 feet long by 14 feet wide. Permanent photo points had been established around the perimeter of the pond during July’s monitoring efforts, their purpose being to aid in creating a photo record of changes at the spring. Carol stood at these points and snapped photographs, while Rosemary noted the tracks of wildlife that were using the site. We measured the length of the shallow rivulet that drained the spring; it flowed for a distance of just under 50 feet before disappearing into the soil. I placed the section of 2-inch-diameter pipe into the flowing water and, digging with my hands, packed mud around its haunches. I continued to add mud to my small dam until it reached six inches high and extended to both banks of the tiny stream. When all the water was captured and flowing through the pipe, I set a bucket under it and the group performed a timed count to determine how many gallons per minute the spring was producing.
Carianne told us that plans to restore the area included the addition of native plants favored by pollinators such as hummingbirds, butterflies, and other insects. She added that McGrew Spring may be an important water source for several species of bat—cave myotis, Mexican long-tongued, Townsend’s big-eared, and lesser long-nosed—that roost in nearby abandoned mine shafts.
That evening, I leafed through a bulging file I keep on the importance of water in the desert. Since 2009, federal agencies, academics, and conservation groups have assessed the status of America’s birds in an annual “State of the Birds” report, which focuses on the habitats that species need to survive. The 2014 report found that “While some overall improvement has occurred to wetlands, arid-land habitats—which include the deserts, sagebrush, and chaparral of the American West—continue to be degraded. Birds in these fragile arid-land habitats show the steepest population declines in the nation with a 46 percent loss in the population of these birds since 1968 and a 6 percent drop just since 2009.”
One paper stated that “in Arizona and New Mexico, at least 80 percent of all animals use riparian areas at some stage of their lives, and more than half of these species are considered to be riparian obligates [require spring or streamside areas for breeding]. Studies in the southwestern United States show that riparian areas support a higher breeding diversity of birds than all other western habitats combined.”
Studying Neotropical migrant birds—and identifying management strategies to conserve them—is like peeling back the layers of an onion. Early research focused on Layer 1: the species’ breeding grounds. Habitat destruction or fragmentation or an increase in predators that consume adults, chicks, or eggs are among the factors that can affect breeding success. Layer 2: Identify and try to mitigate for threats that birds encounter when occupying their wintering habitat. Layer 3: Identify and try to mitigate for threats that birds encounter while on their migration route between summer and winter habitats. Scientists refer to this layer as stopover ecology: in this ever-changing world, are there suitable areas to rest and feed at appropriate intervals along the species’ migration corridor?
It had been a long day. My eyes were growing tired and words began to swim across the page. I struggled to stay awake as I read the following: “Additionally, over 60 percent of the species which are identified as Neotropical migratory birds use riparian areas in the West as stopover areas during migration.” My eyelids shut and the paper slipped from my hand…
I’m dreaming that I’m flying. But not like in previous dreams, where my frantic fluttering slowly lifts me toward the ceiling of a cavernous warehouse, away from the bad guys. This is a journey that spans several weeks.. I’m a Yellow Warbler, returning to northern Alaska after a winter in Peru. For several days, this has been my world: long nightly flights, followed by daylight respite: seeking shelter in groves of trees to feed, doze, and hide from the hawks and falcons that want to make a meal of me.
After the end of one more long night, dazzling pin-pricks of stars in an indigo sky begin to fade. The eastern sky slowly lightens, then the rays of the sun poke above the mountains. As the air warms, turbulence buffets me. Far to the west tower snow-capped mountains, but immediately below me, I see nothing but a parched brown plain, broken here and there by gullies with scattered shrubs. I descend to better scan the terrain and find a safe spot to spend the day. Nothing but rocks and brown dirt, rocks and more dirt.
Suddenly, I spot it: a patch of green, where I know I’ll find water and succulent bugs. I continue my descent, I make a brief, half-circle recon flight over the small cluster of trees before dropping into their protective embrace. There, I find caterpillars dining on the trees’ succulent foliage. One-by-one, I pluck them from the tree, their moisture replacing what I’ve lost during the long night. I lose track of passing time, intent on filling my belly with food. I hear a faint trickling sound and pick my way along furrowed trunk and thorny branches to get a better look. Water bubbles from the ground; a ribbon of green plants grows along the shallow gully that contains the water. But the green ribbon ends abruptly where the water disappears into the ground. Beyond this point lies nothing but rock and powder-dry dirt. Nothing stirs.
For many people, phrases like “biological crossroads” and “melting pot of diversity” are abstractions. Although not the highest, largest, or most well-known of southeastern Arizona’s sky islands, the Whetstones and the range of wildlife it nurtures brings these terms into clearer focus. A jaguar that’s been photographed a number of times since 2012 along the eastern flanks of the nearby Santa Rita Mountains was first photographed in the Whetstones during November 2011. And photographic evidence of an ocelot in the Whetstones was obtained in 2009. Groundwater that emerges as springs or a stream in this mountain range nurtures five species of amphibian: Sonoran tiger salamander; Sonoran mud turtle; and Chiricahua leopard, northern leopard, and lowland leopard frogs. And the mosaic of habitats doesn’t stop at the ground’s surface: Kartchner Caverns’ delicate formations such as “Kubla Khan,” the largest cave columns in Arizona, reveal the range’s limestone underpinnings. During the summer months, the cave’s Big Room serves as a nursery roost for over 1,000 female cave myotis bats.
Say the word “oasis,” and the mental image that most often comes to mind is a cluster of palm trees surrounded by a sea of rock or sand. This corner of Arizona is at too high an elevation to support palms, but its springs, creeks, and occasional river are nevertheless oases. As Wyoming writer Gretel Ehrlich points out: “As a topographic feature, an oasis is life; it is a gathering point, a sanctuary, and a feeding station. It is the desert’s umbilical.” The co-existence of limestone caverns, jaguars, and ocelots here—features and wildlife we normally associate with other regions—are dependent on the Whetstone’s life-giving waters.
Climate change and our own thirst for water threaten to unravel migratory processes that date back many thousands of years. As terrestrial and winged migrants alike encounter ever-warmer temperatures during their journeys, these ribbons of green, sustained by widely scattered desert water sources, are now more important than ever.
Tom Leskiw and his wife Sue and their dog Zevon split their time between Eureka, California and Palominas, Arizona. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. More than three dozen of his essays have appeared in literary journals. www.tomleskiw.com
Once I found one circling on my table in a café, in March, divining a lost pheromone – trail under plates and among coffee – rings. I imagined a corridored world, under – ground, with no main thorough – fares. To get anywhere, to say arrive home, you have to choose between thousands of rooms, with doors leading to more, and each one has a slightly different quality, you pass through a thousand living – rooms to reach yours, where the light – bulb bares its filament for you alone. A drift is aliving in their sensing as the clock – work sleeps. Unidentifiable in their smallness they gather when our elegies are lost, we force them on the page but they fly like black birds back into the trees. Also once I saw one on the rim of the office toilet. Others I have seen word – riven, sword – lit, or sense – attacked, quishy among the fecundary homes, post nature. Dilatorily out – of – place, its tongue – wet rubber – end connectedly brokended its cock – eye. Don’t think straight think like the thread a rain – drop makes upon this window entangled, the bread’s breadth is too dense with what procreates, child – head heaps up, in such situations, we describe a circle or my feet make a line not scan. Crusoed among the washing – up where was dec. The signified cannot hear the signifier, the road composes its waking life. I ran in the soul in the throat of the hour – glass to chance to be here to be the fagend in my own life – time. I have broke the folding eye and slept between the cracks protected by words, mere flames, lips crackling. There are silences lodged in hotels where we must trust the sentence to lead us before such a night as collapses in the smog, between the four chaosses contained in your loss. The eye – lash trembles under the hood, we have loved also a room the size of an eye where we remit and the imputed sky becomes plain, is aloof on the resting surface of arm, in here we feel or portray the silence we wish for as we sit behind the message that stirs in us, to share with the edge, for they say the ant’s shoulder can carry away a house. In dactylic cling to wend the out – worn glossary its workings indentured in disrupts of shadow – stalk follow the proxied world – lord of lost river, ancient path, division of rain – drops—these follow no map, sweep before all in order to bear home the sugar – grain. I walked past the table to a window, and a large balcony. There was a view of the lake a the bottom of the hill. It was blue, beautiful, and warm. No one was bathing there, the grassy shore clear, and the water translucent, inviting. Looking down – wards things seemed full of warmth and potential joy, but I woke with a head – ache and a strong thirst.
Giles Goodland has had several books published over the last 20 years, most recently from Salt and Shearsman. He is currently working on a sequence concerning invertebrates.
Sweat cascaded down my face, dripped hot and wet down my back and fused at the base of my spine. Mosquitoes buzzed around me, a black cloud that parted and pooled as I walked. My head was covered by a tight net, tucked into the double collars of my two long sleeved shirts, the sleeves buttoned and carefully inserted into thick gloves. But the mosquitoes – the green and the gold, the angry purples and the shy ones with the sapphire blue wings – dive-bombed my forehead, my ears, the tip of my nose, the backs of my shoulders, the flabby bits at my hips, the tops of my fingers, anywhere that my skin touched material. I itched constantly, not just from the mosquito bites but from the lice that were crawling in my hair, from the most recent attack of scabies that wouldn’t seem to budge, and from the conspicuous lump on the back of my neck that I suspected was a worm, beginning to hatch under my skin. My trousers were wet up to the crotch, where I’d waded through the black swamp on my way out into the jungle, and my rubber boots made a nasty sucking sound in the mud. It hadn’t rained in days, and the swamp was lower than it had been, but still it was misery. I was lucky though – most parts of her territory were dry. But that meant the trails were covered in leaves. She didn’t like leaves. And so here I was, at six on a Sunday morning with one hundred per cent humidity, raking leaves off the forest floor. The rake was old and rusty, and fifty per cent useless. I had new blisters too, blooming across my skin. I was desperate for the loo, but I would rather urinate though my wet trousers than expose my soft behind to the bugs. In one slap, I could kill over one hundred mosquitoes, easy. Feeling my strength beginning to flag, I transferred the awkward wad of coca leaves in my cheek to the other side, pushing it across with my tongue. The bitter juice from the leaves entered my blood stream, giving me energy. This was why I was still standing, rather than curled up in an exhausted, beaten ball of human flesh. Coca and, of course, her.
The puma (Puma concolor), also commonly known as cougar, mountain lion, panther, or catamount, is a large felid of the subfamily Felinae native to the Americas. They are the second heaviest cats in the region, after the jaguar, and their coats range from brown to tawny to deep grey. Solitary by nature, they are nocturnal and crepuscular. The puma is an ambush predator, and they prefer dense underbrush and rocky areas for stalking. They are also the largest felines in the world that can purr.
Ten years ago, I had a vague sense that a puma was a cat, probably a large one, but that was as far as my knowledge went. I had no sense of the jungle, beginning to brush its dark leaves against the very edges of my future, and no sense at all that a puma was going to be the thing that would change my life for good. I had finished an MA, and was working happily in the city, wearing smart suits and pointy shoes, relishing the buzz and smog of London. I was, at the same time, on the verge of beginning a PhD, which I planned to centre on the obscurity of eighteenth century art. Life was good. But, the thought niggled, I had never really travelled. And I wanted to do that before I settled into the dusky life of an academic.
So I went to South America. Not for too long, I wanted to be back in England for the summer festival season, for the picnics in Hyde Park and the late evening drinks in Covent Garden. I bought a three-month ticket to Bolivia. I knew nothing about Bolivia, only that it was the cheapest country on the continent.
I travelled. I did what normal travellers did – I visited the salt deserts and the canyons with the condors, I went on a carefully curated Amazon tour, I saw the place where Che Guevara was executed and I lost a few weeks in La Paz, the world’s highest capital city. I enjoyed it, but half way through, the rootlessness of backpacker life began to get me down. I kind of wanted to go home. Flirting with the idea of moving my flight forward, I was sitting in an internet café in a hot northern town, when a random flyer caught my eye. There was a cute photo of a monkey on the front. I picked it up, and read: Volunteer at Ambue Ari animal refuge. Stay for two weeks or a month and work with rescued exotic wildlife. I considered this. I didn’t really want to change my flight, and maybe staying in the same place for a few weeks would ease my craving for stability. And monkeys were fun, right? So I got on a bus; five hours later I was getting off again, on a straight tarmac road deep in the Amazon jungle.
The first creature I met was a pig. A black pig, almost the size of a small cow, with sharp yellow teeth, beady brown eyes, a long wiry-haired snout and a smell like month old sewage. She was watching me when I got off the bus, a bright red bra hanging incongruously from her mouth. Our eyes met, and then she snorted, and turned, and disappeared down a small trail into the trees. Not knowing what else to do, I followed her. The trail was thin and winding, and every few yards a new trampled piece of underwear lay forlornly in the mud.
The second creature I met at Ambue Ari was a person, but one that smelt almost as bad as the pig and was just as dirty. The path opened up into a ramshackle clearing, spread about with various wooden huts and benches. Washing lines, presumably the source of the pig’s pilfered goods, hung about the place. A man, adorned with a formidable beard, looking to be, like me, in his mid-twenties, approached. He had a lump in his cheek, which I would have thought was some kind of growth if he hadn’t opened his mouth to speak, and I hadn’t seen the inexplicable edge of a wad of leaves. I recoiled. His teeth were stained green, and green-black saliva bubbled on his lips.
“You here to volunteer?” he grunted.
I looked down at myself. My clean jeans, my bright white trainers, my impeccably packed rucksack, my soft skin and shining, newly washed hair. I wasn’t so sure. The pig, bra lost, suddenly reappeared covered in wet compost. She began to rub her snout up and down the man’s leg, emitting a smell from her behind like old urine. And then a huge monkey, red as fire, swung down from a tree and landed with a howl on the man’s shoulders. The monkey bared his teeth, and exposed his erect penis. And then it wasn’t just the man, the pig, the monkey and me – there was a whole crowd of people, all feral. They took my backpack, covered me with their sweat, showed me a bunk in one of the wooden huts, and signed me up, reluctantly, for two weeks.
The camp was run by Bolivians, but the majority of the volunteers were foreigners like me. They were a motley collection, and there were no more than ten at most when I first arrived. Some people had been there weeks, some months, some years. Pigs, monkeys, birds, deer and tapirs lived in and around the camp. They had all been rescued from the black market, some with the intention of release but most – due to governmental legislation, the animals’ inability to look after themselves, and lack of resources at the camp itself – were there for life. The red monkey, who I quickly learned had a penchant for flashing his penis at women, had lived in a hotel in La Paz – where he had smoked cigarettes, watched TV and drank alcohol – until he became too aggressive. His owners had then left him at Ambue Ari. He was terrified of the jungle, and he was happiest when reclining in the bunk beds of the female volunteers. But he was a sad animal, and would often sit forlornly on the aged camp motorcycle, staring at his own reflection in the solitary wing mirror. Sometimes, he would attack people. Men, specifically the tall ones with dark beards, and then afterwards if not prevented, he would beat himself, or find his way to the road to sit suicidally in the middle of the tarmac. It was this that made me first fall in love with Ambue Ari. This monkey – his name was Coco – was never put in a cage. He hated cages. If he attacked someone, that person had to leave. Ambue was Coco’s home, and it was our job to make him as happy as we were able. His comfort was primary, and ours – as human volunteers – was secondary.
At that time, Ambue cared for about fifteen big cats. Jaguars, pumas and ocelots. They lived deep in the jungle. They each had their own cages and their own walking trails, and it was taboo to go and visit a cat that was not your own appointed charge. These cats had no hope of release, and for them stability and peace was essential. Some of them were happy; some of them were volatile and scared. They were given as much enrichment as was possible – some walked and swum with volunteers outside of their cages, others were simply too aggressive or playful to be in close contact with humans.
If there were enough volunteers, each person was given one cat, and the full time care of that cat was their responsibility. The ocelots had one appointed volunteer, the pumas and jaguars two, sometimes three. If you wanted to work with a cat, you had to stay for a month minimum. When I learned this, I extended my stay. I was given an ocelot, called Lazy Cat. She was appropriately sleepy, calm, and affectionate. We spent a glorious month together. Every morning I trekked out into the jungle to her cage. And then on a rope looped around my waist, we walked together through the trees. Her in front, stalking sunbeams and monkeys; me behind, trying to keep quiet. When she got tired, she would lie down and I would sit next to her, and watch her sleep. At six in the evening, we would go back to her cage. I would feed her and then return to camp, where I would while away the candlelit nights with the other humans, playing cards and watching the stars.
My month passed quickly. I loved the freedom of the place. I loved the forest and the trees, the easy purpose of placing the care of an animal above yourself, and the lack of electricity, hot water, phone signal and internet. I slipped into the remoteness of it with an ease that surprised me, and I found that I enjoyed not showering. Wearing the same muddy clothes each day was a relief rather than a hardship. But my flight home was looming. I was sad about it, then just as I was beginning to pack, the woman who was in charge said to me:
“Quieres irse?” (Do you want to leave?)
“Hay un puma, quien es muy triste y dificil. Pienso que te quedas y cuidas de este puma, si? Se llama Wayra.” (There is a puma, who is very sad and difficult. I think you stay, and look after this puma, yes? Her name is Wayra.)
I don’t know if I felt something then, something that felt like fate, but I know I didn’t put up much of a fight. I hitched a ride into town and extended my flight for another three months. Life at the refuge was cheap, and whilst my savings would not have lasted in London, in Bolivia I had more than enough. The next day, I began my training with Wayra.
She was terrifying. She was the size of a very large dog, and her coat glimmered silver under the shadow of the trees. The first time I saw her, Wayra launched herself at me with such a depth of anger that, if it hadn’t been for the fence between us, I thought she would have killed me. Her claws were razors, her teeth sharp and huge. Saliva dribbled down her chin. Her eyes were black, swollen and frantic. She hissed unceasingly, racing back and forth, back and forth, giant paws beating the compacted dirt, and then she launched again, the fence bowing dangerously. I backed away.
This was Wayra. Her mother had been killed by hunters; she’d been sold on the black market as a house pet. At ten months, she’d then been left at the refuge. I met her when she was three years old. She was thin, and only ate when she was happy – which, at that time, wasn’t very much. Her mood could change in a second. One moment she’d be relatively calm, and the next she’d be spitting and hissing and acting like the world was crashing down around her ears. She was terrified of everything, from the brush of a gust of wind to the crunch of a leaf under her feet. She’d jump, all four paws in the air, and then turn on you, incensed that you had the gall to think her afraid.
We would attach a rope to her collar through the safety of the door, and then attach this rope to a long ‘runner’ – a sturdy cord that ran for thirty metres between her cage and the start of her trail. This was a way for her to be outside her cage, but as independent as possible. She’d lie down and sleep, and ignore me. If I dared to breathe too loud, she’d raise her head, eyes flashing, and hiss.
When she wanted to walk, she’d pace to the beginning of her trail and stare at me distastefully. If I made her wait too long, she would let me know by growling, sometimes faking a lunge, teeth bared. When she walked, she had to have someone in front, a bodyguard, someone on whom she could focus herself. This was in part protection, and in part a way (I think) for her to forget that there was also someone behind her, someone who had a rope, someone she was attached to. This, she hated. She could walk for hours, running and stalking – and seem happy. But then, something would happen. The person behind would stand on a stick, or a leaf, and then she would spin and she would hiss and she would flinch back in fear and confusion, and then she would growl and hiss again and bolt, racing and hissing and growling and spitting all the way back to her cage.
Then we would all fall asleep, exhausted, and I would wake up to her licking my face.
I fell in love with Wayra quicker and more deeply than I have ever fallen in love with anyone. I stayed, that time, over four months. By the time I left, she seemed calmer. I left because I felt I should, because it wasn’t reasonable to spend so long in the jungle, was it? But I couldn’t go back to England – I’d already missed my flight anyway – so I travelled again. I travelled to Columbia and Ecuador, Chile and Brazil and Argentina. I travelled for a year, treading a giant loop around South America until eventually I found my way back to her.
I have now spent the better part of the last nine years with her. I stay for as long as I can – sometimes a few months, sometimes a year – and then I return to England where I am always, without fail, floored by culture shock. I think about her, all the time, and I miss her deeply. I now live more in England than I do in the jungle, but I go back as much as I can and so far she has always remembered me. She has her ups and downs. She is more happy than not, but she is still Wayra. The world – the human world – has done her a terrible injustice, but her capacity for trust and patience, love and compassion is immense.
Ambue has over thirty cats now, and needs more than forty volunteers at any one time to function properly. Logging trucks speed by every day, wild cats crowd our paths because their territories are shrinking, and rescued animals relentlessly turn up needing homes. Wayra is not alone in her frustration and fear, and neither am I. There are many others like me, volunteers (often with no prior experience of animal care) who’ve found the refuge, who’ve connected with a particular animal, and had their lives changed because of it. I never ended up doing a PhD. I started an arts/ecology charity called Onca. I wanted to tell stories about her, and then I saw that other people wanted also to tell stories about their own connections with the changing nature of the wild. So I opened a gallery, specifically for these kinds of stories. Essential, life-altering stories that offer a way to help us re-imagine our role on this planet. To re-imagine who we are, as humans and as animals, just as Wayra has done for me.
Ambue Ari is one of three animal refuges run by the Bolivian NGO, Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi. They are always in need of volunteers. For more information on how to help, visit www.intiwarayassi.org
Laura Coleman is the Founder and Director of Onca, a small charity inspiring creativity and positive action in the face of environmental change. She is based in the South East of England at the Onca Centre for Arts and Ecology, curating an ongoing programme of exhibitions, workshops and events. She also acts as a consultant for artists and arts organisations, sharing her understanding of the growing need for new interpretations of our changing planet. In addition, Laura is a writer, public speaker and explorer. Since her early twenties, she has been rescuing and rehabilitating exotic wildlife in the Bolivian Amazon. www.onca.org.uk
The torturous drip…drip of water from my roof into one of the plastic tubs on the floor has ceased for the time-being. Peering through my mosquito net and the gap in the curtains I can see the flashes from distant storms. I am not sure the drips will stay away for long. I am in central Namibia, the 5th least populated country on the planet, home to spectacular scenery and wildlife and what is thought to be the oldest desert in the world. I arrived at the end of the rainy season, the heat of the day often culminating in a frantic shower of lightning and a dumping of rain onto the shrubland. Flowers and grasses spring into action, seizing the opportunity before the long dry winter, producing colourful, thick, dewy carpets in contrast to the orange, cracked earth. It was not quite the weather I had expected for fieldwork in Southern Africa.
I was working at the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST), a small organisation that has a rehabilitation and education centre 47km south of Otjiwarongo, with the aim to care for, rehabilitate and release wildlife. REST also aims to carry out research and education on some species which are not often in the spotlight, but are thought to be of particular conservation concern, of which it has coined the phrase, Namibia’s forgotten five (more recently the forgotten five plus one). These are the Cape griffon vulture, dwarf python, African wild dog, Temminck’s ground pangolin or Cape pangolin, Damara dik-dik and the spotted rubber frog. These animals are representative of the entire land ecosystem of Namibia. REST is also home to a number of animals that are not deemed fit for release.
Maria Diekmann, REST’s founder, was originally inspired to help Namibia’s wildlife by the plight of the majestic Cape griffon vulture and the majority of the project’s initial conservation work focussed on this species. The largest bird of its kind in Africa, it is threatened by electrocution from power lines, habitat change and by poisonings both directly and indirectly. More so in the last three years than ever before, elephant and rhino poachers are lacing carcasses with poison to directly target vultures, whose aerial presence, above an animal they have slain, is seen as a clear giveaway to the poacher’s whereabouts, potentially alerting and informing officials in the area. Farmers and ranchers also sometimes use poisons in the carcasses of animals, to target predators, which they believe threaten their stock. The outcome of both is the same, the gregarious nature of vultures results in mass die offs, 50-500 can be poisoned from one carcass. The species is listed as vulnerable with the global population thought to stand at around 8000 birds, but despite Maria and REST’s best efforts, which have included releasing birds from South African populations into Namibia, radio tracking and tagging individuals, it is now classed as extinct as a breeding species in the country. Evidence from Maria’s radio tracking of individuals shows flights of up to 400km into neighbouring countries, with just one poisoned carcass enough to prove fatal, it demonstrates just how difficult a problem this is to tackle.
In the large aviary built into the side of the mountain on which REST lies in shadow, Nesher, one of the three resident, un-releasable, Capes and the only male, lands a few feet away, his two and a half metre wingspan sending dust and spiralling feathers towards me, as he slows down to steady himself on landing. Nesher was captive bred and despite efforts he is too tame to be released back into the wild. It is hoped he will be instrumental in captive breeding programmes. He looks quizzically at me, his long bald neck craning to see if I am carrying any food. A brighter white than the white-backed vultures they can be confused with and bulkier than their nearest rival in size, the lappet-faced vulture. I am aware I will never have the opportunity to be in such close quarters with these birds again, to admire the industrial bill, the long, thick reptilian toes or to be fixed in the yellow eyes of an animal that has evolved so perfectly to cope with the poisons of the natural world such as anthrax and botulism, but not to such rapid and intense human pressure. It is a tragedy that now no one can see this mighty bird, in the wild, in Namibia.
As well as the Cape griffon vultures it is safe to say that Maria’s other passion lies with pangolins. This has much to do with one particular pangolin named Katiti and his mother Roxy. To think of an animal more bizarre would be difficult; it is bipedal, holding its front legs, complete with long claws, close to its body, which is fully covered in scales. It has a tongue that can be longer than its body. The largest species can weigh up to 33kg and measure 140cm long and its closest genetic relation is the carnivora order containing hyenas and wolves. However within these comic complexities and obscurities hides darker facts about this animal; it is particularly vulnerable to electrocution by electric fence, all eight species are threatened with extinction and it is listed by the IUCN as the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world. We might wipe out this curious oddball before we know anything about it.
Roxy was seized from the black market and given to Maria to be rehabilitated and released. Unbeknown to REST staff, Roxy was pregnant and the subsequent birth of a male pup enabled the first footage to be recorded of a Cape pangolin birth. Everything was new at this stage and the first photo in the public domain of a Cape pangolin pup being carried on the back of its mother was also captured by REST. However, after a foraging trip Roxy did not return to her pup and Maria and her staff were forced to raise the animal themselves. That was two and half years ago and on my first meeting with Katiti, it certainly did not look like it had held him back. Almost more surprising than the very nature of a pangolin was the fact that Maria was carrying him around her neck and on her head. Every day Katiti was taken out to forage for up to 5 hours and in order to supply him with enough ants and termites that hadn’t previously been disturbed, it was important to take him to different areas of REST’s land. This required carrying him to and from foraging grounds and the most comfortable way for both pangolin and accomplice is either sat on your shoulder with his muscular tail wrapped around your neck or perched on top of your head. I learned it was a good idea to wear a hat if Katiti chose the latter method of transportation.
Pangolins do not generally fare well in captivity, not being able to cope with the stress and the change in environment. However, Katiti is flourishing. He is measured and weighed twice a day and enjoys sleeping for most for it. Upon waking he is taken out to forage. In this way Katiti forages completely naturally, using his strong front claws to dig into ant nests in the hard ground, fishing out its inhabitants with his long tongue. He can visit between 50-150 nests in one session. The number of times he eats, what he eats and a GPS track is recorded by the observer. Very little is known about pangolin behaviour due to their elusive nature, therefore being able to follow Katiti in this way enables not only important data to be collected but provides an insight into the lives of these poorly understood creatures.
Katiti trundles along, his armoured tail raised parallel to the ground as well as his front limbs, his elephant-like, stump back legs powering him, constantly alert to the vibrations or sounds of ants underground. He stops and the sharp ends of his long, adapted nails flick at the pea sized entrance hole to the ant nest, attempting to breach the rock hard earth. I flinch, imagining the feeling of losing a fingernail, as his powerful limbs are making no headway. But Katiti is undeterred, his claws much stronger than I imagine. He is in, flicking clods of earth around him, then spraying sand as the ground gets softer. His tongue goes to work and so do the ants, swarming all over him. A protective membrane covers his eyes and being heavily scaled helps protect from the bites, but I wonder about his soft underbelly. Sometimes he spends less than a minute at a nest, other times nearer ten, digging deep into the earth and the heart of the nest. Katiti pushes on through the bush, a small battering ram, over and through thick thorn bushes, dead trees and ditches, unaware of the difficulty for his human follower. He is equipped with a tracking device, screwed onto one of his hard scales, in case the vicious, skin-tearing, shirt-ripping African flora is too thick for me and he is lost. Fortunately, he is quite easy to hear ploughing through the undergrowth, even if lost to sight. Occasionally Katiti will flinch into his protective ball, in response to something unseen, unheard, unfelt by me, but clearly a perceived danger. A more primitive defence mechanism surely does not exist than to become an immobile, impenetrable ball. Sadly this has led to the pangolin’s demise, as this may be enough to fool big cats but it makes them an easy target for humans.
Although foraging in the cooler part of the day, sometimes it is too hot for Katiti and he will rest on his scaly back with his belly exposed and urinate over himself, wiggling, trying to spread the cooling liquid over him with his forelimbs. It is much the same action when he finds a muddy puddle, he will roll around on his back and shake vigorously, stirring the mud up and covering himself the best he can. It is likely that this benefits his scales and skin by providing protection against parasites and the strong African sun.
Katiti’s role at REST is not only as a powerful educational tool, to promote awareness among local people and visitors, but also in helping to rehabilitate other pangolins. Due to an increase in demand for pangolin products in both Africa and Asia, REST have received many that have been seized from the black market. Those in good health are released as quickly as possible into protected areas. More often, however, pangolins are received emaciated, stressed and dehydrated and the extra shock of being admitted to a rehabilitation centre is sometimes enough to kill them. Maria has had more success in rehabilitating these animals using Katiti. She believes that Katiti, as he is comfortable in the surroundings, helps to settle his compatriots so they can begin to behave more naturally and build up the strength to be releasable.
REST is a small organization run by Maria and her only permanent member of staff, Margareth, trying its best to tackle problems of biodiversity loss in Namibia. Perhaps it is too late for the Cape griffon vulture in the country and an appetite for the pangolins’ skin, scales and meat has thrown all eight species across the globe into steep decline. Pangolin skin is used in the manufacture of boots and other leather items, the meat is consumed as a delicacy as well as imparting perceived health benefits, and the scales are dried and used in traditional medicines to treat a variety of ills from asthma to cancers, even to promote lactation. As populations of the four Asian pangolin species are not able to meet current demand, due to over-hunting, there is evidence to suggest that the resultant high prices are driving the smuggling of African pangolins across continents to meet the shortfall. Perhaps this market is the biggest threat to Katiti and his species, currently classed as vulnerable. Will the four African species go the same way as their Asian cousins (two species listed as endangered, two as critically endangered)?
As for REST, the organisation where I have been able to experience such magical moments with animals I am not likely to ever see again, they are learning things about these creatures that no one else in the world knows. Their passionate, labour intensive, all-consuming, conservation and rehabilitation work provides hope for many African creatures, inspires many children and educates farmers and ranchers on how to treat wildlife. Now the very existence of REST, as if some twisted metaphor for the animals it is trying to save, hangs in the balance. Maria is seeing the organisation that she built from scratch in the African bush, threatened with eviction. Wildlife conservation is often a labour of love, a passionate endeavour that puts personal hardship second to the benefit of species that can’t thank you for doing so. It is a struggle and a fight against people and organisations that choose not to care for conservation and wildlife. REST will continue to fight but if organisations like them lose what will Namibia, Africa and the world lose?
REST are in urgent need of support to continue their work in Namibia. For more information, visit their website:http://www.restafrica.org
Josh Flatman is a graduate from Exeter University with a conservation biology and ecology degree and a masters by research in wildlife disease management. He has participated in turtle conservation in Northern Cyprus, cetacean research in Norway and most recently volunteered in Namibia at REST and at a baboon research project run by ZSL. www.joshflatman.com
He said his friend worked at the ASPCA or something.
He paused. Actually euthanized dogs,
pit bulls mostly… Unable to listen, I see them
trot up, eager to please—that trait we bred in:
Puppies—clumsy paws, elders’ salted snoot.
Ears floppy, torn or tacked in royal tips.
Irises startling amber, green, citrine.
Coats tuxedo, brindle or tan-white sheen.
Seized by glazed willingness in wide-set eyes
adrenaline quivering not me-not me-not me,
he understood—limp body after body:
They were the ones who were good.
by Gordon Meade
Illustration by Douglas Robertson
In his minimally decorated cell, Bear remembers when things were
not so good. Back in the old days,
bear-baiting was not only legal,
it was positively encouraged. Bear
recalls watching some of his
best friends being dragged through
the streets in chains, with iron collars
fastened around their necks, being
barked at, and bitten, by strays
The Dusky Seaside Sparrow
by Daniel C. Bryant
First bird to become extinct since the creation of
The Endangered Species List
At just an ounce
he would have mattered less
had he not been the last,
would not have been remembered by name –
like astronauts flown from Canaveral.
Yes, there was something bigger than that death
that day in June, 1987,
bigger than that 8X10 foot cage,
that Florida –
a whole greater than the melody of its parts.
The reeds still bend and rustle in the wind.
The salt marsh fills and empties
in slow systoles
as rockets rise.
Here lies the science of extinction.
by David Lloyd
I salute bats for acrobatics,
their gobbling of mosquitoes,
their faces like my own
in fun-house mirrors.
They, in turn, salute me,
as they do all solids
within their radius, with dives
and silent screams,
sizing me as I trudge along,
grounded in twilight –
with one arm raised.
by Donna D. Vitucci
Riding an elephant is nothing like riding a horse,
nor like riding any earthly animal. When the elephant
bends her mammoth head to drink, or wash or revel
in a pool, she takes the rider with her.
Her rider expects a bath, but this never happens
since the creature’s tenderness ascends like Asia,
runs right through her ears, those tent flap ears,
sheets of years-worn leather which– look!
They unfurl and rise and wrap the woman,
thighs to hips, and hold her to a lumpy spine.
The rider is wrapped as if she is the stuffing in grape leaves,
as if she is part of the menu. She bows with the head,
for what can she do? She is part of the animal, part now
of what honors water’s scarcity and source, genuflecting
in the aftermath of great thirst, of great denial.
Working through the mouth is harder
by Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
“Inspired by ‘Slaughtering and Butchering’, Dynah Geissal, www.backwardshome.com (1993)”
When the temperature falls
and the pasture is no longer adequate,
it’s time to butcher.
Draw lines from eartip
to opposite eye.
Where the lines cross
is where you shoot.
There is a certain
satisfaction in using everything.
Ears can flavour a pot of beans,
stomachs can hold sausage,
lungs are edible. The heart
is a keeper, the head
can be used to make soup
Raise the beast when it
becomes difficult to
reach your work.
Remove the skin, eyes, ears, nose, take
out anything that looks
You may want
to brush the teeth.
I think I’ve tried saving just
I think there’s some
value in that. If no-one wants
to eat it, the value is
Poet and Artist Biographies:
Ann Cefola is the author of Face Painting in the Dark (Dos Madres Press, 2014); St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped (Kattywompus Press, 2011), Sugaring (Dancing Girl Press, 2007), and the translation Hence this cradle (Seismicity Editions, 2007). A Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Residency recipient, she received the Robert Penn Warren Award judged by John Ashbery. For more information, see www.anncefola.com and www.annogram.blogspot.com
Gordon Meade is a Scottish poet who is based in the East Neuk of Fife. In the past, he has been the Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Dundee. His eighth collection of poems, Les Animots: A Human Bestiary, a collaboration with Doug Robertson, is to be published in Autumn 2015 with Cultured Llama Publishing.
Douglas Robertson was born in Dundee and now lives in Hampshire. An artist and teacher, he has worked on numerous collaboration projects and has exhibited widely throughout the UK. His work is in many public collections, including the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther, and Comunn Eachdraidh Nis on the Isle of Lewis. His work is included in the BBC’s ‘Your Paintings’. He has had two collaborations with Donald S. Murray published in 2015: SY StorY, by Birlinn in February, and Herring Tales, by Bloomsbury in September. His work can be viewed at www.douglasrobertson.co.uk
Daniel C. Bryant is a physician living in Maine. He has published poetry and short stories in a variety of literary and medical magazines, and has recently published a collection of medically inspired short fiction House Call, as well as a novel about a home-grown jihadist Way We Waken One by One. In 2015 he was a finalist in the short fiction category of the Maine Literary Awards competition.
David Lloyd is the author of nine books, including three poetry collections: Warriors (Salt Publishing, 2012), The Gospel According to Frank (New American Press, 2009), and The Everyday Apocalypse (Three Conditions Press, 2002). His fiction includes a novel, Over the Line (2013) and a fiction collection, Boys: Stories and a Novella (2004), both from Syracuse University Press. He has edited many books relating to Welsh writing in English, including Imagined Greetings: Poetic Engagements with R. S. Thomas (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch), Other Land: Contemporary Poems on Wales and Welsh-American Experience (Parthian), Writing on the Edge: Interviews with Writers and Editors of Wales (Rodopi), and The Urgency of Identity: Contemporary English-Language Poetry from Wales (Northwestern University Press). In 2000, he received the Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Award. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DoubleTake, New Welsh Review, Poetry Wales, and Planet. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, USA.
Donna D. Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older adult women in Northern Kentucky. Her stories and poems have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including PANK, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Front Porch, Watershed Review, Gargoyle, Hinchas de Poesia, Contrary, Corium Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Change Seven and most recently The Butter. Her novel AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE will be published by Rebel E Press in 2016. Long ago, she started out a poet and her stories even now often trespass into poetry.
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell is a London-based digital arts journalist and PhD student, previously published in Agenda, Antiphon and The Guardian. Current poetry projects include a collection about the opportunities for inter-species mediation represented by NASA’s “Golden Record”.
The pet shop
hung with giant black iron coops
holds exotic birds
a hyacinth macaw, newly captured
the only one to survive the smuggling
of ten others in a rubber truck tire
hot dirty air, no water
hangs dazed, upside-down
from a bamboo perch
eyes black and dead
close and open blankly
I bend to pick up a feather
that floatfalls its escape
a bit of wing
that once cut through dark mists
of rain forest canopies
like a deep cobalt knife
soon they will come to trim his claws
file his beak, hang a price.
by Gretchen Primack
Maybe someday you will trick
Maybe I will find value in you
on one foot.
I will take you from family,
so I can watch you
Will you bore me? I bore myself
to your conditions, cut off
from my life
and language. None of me
is left; still
you found something
by Gretchen Primack
You are owned, and you are chained.
The chain stretches from a spike in the
yard to your neck. The yard stretches from
a bare spot behind the house to a barren spot
behind the house. The chain wraps itself
around a paw, deft around an ear, a tail.
Two toes, a leg. The chain spins your body
into a cocoon that spins into a ball, monstrous
metal yarn long enough to knit the earth
a cold straitjacket. In the heart of the ball is you.
The above Gretchen Primack poems are part of Kind, a collection that explores the dynamics between humans and (other) animals in our time. Kind was published in 2013 by Post-Traumatic Press.
by Jen Karetnick
Found in a shed, curled and content,
the mini-van-length reticulated python
did not have a microchip, the news reported.
But he did have several household pets
in his digestive track, perhaps the cause
of his docile drowse. Like most constrictors
headed for the Everglades, he likely had been
released by an owner. The authorities intend
to use him now to train the men who hunt
that which does not belong, or implant in him
transmitters and release him to engage
a broody female. Serial impregnator, unwitting
traitor, this is where he will just follow
his instincts. He doesn’t mean to trap her. Oh,
how familiar all this sounds.
The Maned Owl
by Jeredith Merrin
(Jubula lettii: classified  as “Data Deficient”
by the International Union for Conservation of Nature)
About the maned owl
there is little to tell
because little is known.
It gets its leonine name
from bushy, face-framing
ear tufts. It lives
in Gambon, Cameroon,
Liberia, the Congo
(in what numbers we don’t know),
in closed-canopy rainforest.
Its habits are secretive
and nocturnal. Presumably,
given heavy lumbering,
its survival’s at risk.
About reproduction and diet,
information is scant.
Its call may be
(we’re not sure)
a low, dove-like coo.
As is the case with
the wide coral reefs,
or with each creature’s
or with almost anyone’s
mother or father,
too little is known about them.
And then they’re gone.
by John Willson
The door of the van slides open to musk.
Steel mesh in a diamond pattern
screens a spotted form that paces in straw,
cheetah in a Thriftway parking lot, a stop
on the way to a middle school presentation.
She rubs her cheek against the cage, streaks
of black from eyes to mouth.
She purrs, a rattling from a subterranean drum.
Touching her neck, my fingertip vibrates
from the first purring I’ve heard since purring
died in a small white room last month, our cat
on my shoulder, her neck pressed against my ear,
the vet cooing Nice kitty as he injected
barbiturates. The cheetah, born
C-section in a wild animal park, Looks first
at people on crutches, her handler says.
The one whose tongue brushes my finger twice
and the tabby buried under mint in our kitchen garden
fuse in the whiteness of noon as the van
door slides shut and locks.
Eileen Malone’s poetry has appeared in over 500 literary journals and anthologies, a significant amount of which have earned citations and prizes, i.e., three were Pushcart nominees. Her award winning collection Letters with Taloned Claws was published by Poets Corner Press (Sacramento) and her book I Should Have Given Them Water0was published by Ragged Sky Press (Princeton). She lives in the coastal fog at the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, three rescued dogs, two rescued parakeets, and one rescued cat, where she founded and directs the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, (is a voting member of the Northern California Book Reviewers Awards, and a local mental health supporter and activist. www.eileenmalone.us
Gretchen Primack is the author of two poetry collections, Kind (Post-Traumatic Press 2013) and Doris’ Red Spaces (Mayapple Press 2014). Her poems are in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Poet Lore, The Massachusetts Review, FIELD, Antioch Review, Ploughshares, Best New Poets, and other journals. She coordinates Ulster Literacy Association’s jail program. Also an advocate for non-human animals, she co-wrote The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (Penguin Avery 2012) with Jenny Brown.
Jen Karetnick is a Miami-based poet and writer with three full-length books of poetry, two forthcoming in 2015-16, and four chapbooks of poetry. Her work has been published widely in journals including Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, december, North American Review, River Styx and Valparaiso Poetry Review. She works as the Creative Writing Director for Miami Arts Charter School and as a freelance food-travel writer and critic.
Jeredith Merrin: Jeredith Merrin–CUP, a special honoree in the Able Muse Press poetry competition, is Merrin’s new poetry collection; her previous books, Shift and Bat Ode, appeared in the University of Chicago Press Phoenix Poets series. She’s authored an influential book of criticism on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, and her reviews and essays (on Moore, Bishop, Clare, Mew, Amichai, and others) have appeared in The Southern Review and elsewhere. Her poems may be found in Ploughshares, The Southern Poetry Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Yale Review. A retired Professor of English (The Ohio State University), she lives in Chandler, Arizona, teaches the occasional class for the A.S.U. Piper Center, and is currently completing a chapbook having to do with owls. See: www.amazon.com/Jeredith-Merrin
John Willson is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Artist Trust of Washington. A two-time finalist in the National Poetry Series, John lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he has been designated an Island Treasure.
from the island of himself,
the Spix’s Macaw clawing
of captive survivors.
The Pyrenean Ibex
takes vertiginous bets
on who’s next –
the Caspian Tiger’s
wild striped guess says
the Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth’s
himself, racing past
the red edge
of his mangroves,
while dead glaciers wait
for the kiss
of the Snow Leopard’s tread.
And look, here’s
the Common Skate,
the tide of her name,
snarled in infinite
by Kathleen McClung
“Merlin is 13 years, 10 months old…He is to become the oldest raccoon ever on record in
California and will break the record for the current oldest raccoon in North America.”
–San Francisco Chronicle, February 21,2014
He sleeps through nights, his prowling over. Wild,
the others seize the dark, die young, by three.
Hunched, hardly masked, Merlin has us beguiled.
How has he weathered his captivity
since losing Lance, his brother, long ago,
since losing any chance to steal away?
His keeper holds him close in this photo
and rubs his bony spine as if to say You do belong with us. She feeds him grapes,
mice, trout puréed, and maybe Merlin purrs,
a ragged hum, resigned to life with no escapes,
no redwood groves, no toppling garbage cans, neighbors
disturbed from dreams of thieves. Do human hands console,
relieve his aches, return enough of all we stole?
Severe Thunderstorm Warning
by Kristin Stoner
This morning the sky churns to black,
the streetlights come back to life,
and the television is a rainbow of radar.
Beware, the weatherman says.
Unsettled, he says about the sky.
At my feet, the dog sleeps,
a golden, curved back rising
and falling in the rhythm
of content, oblivious
to the stirring storm heads.
0000000Oblivious to warnings.
Or, I think, maybe not oblivious,
but rather indifferent with trust
in the safety of our little house,
her place within it.
The streetlights brighten,
the cascade of rain begins,
and I think about all the dogs
that are not this dog,
designed by us to need only us,
right now cowering
in open-front, plywood, shelters.
Or shaking in the underbellies
of sagging porches,
eyes wide with the doubt
the lack of safety presses
on any living thing
designed to need love
and getting only rain.
Porpoise, Sandeels Bay
by Roselle Angwin
How the darkness must have thrashed
with your refusal of this alien element
its gravity, its tug where you couldn’t be fluid
and how long this must have gone on
with your whistles and hums and none
of your kind coming, nor the tide
while we inland slept easy under our duvets
just short of the sea, its roars and murmurs
– though below, nearer bedrock, in our dreams
darkness scratched a jagged line across our deeps.
Death of a Species
by Suzanne Iuppa
Sharp tang outside a bare-soiled sett;
black lump shoved down a farmer’s boot.
war is war.
clubbed and bitten
musky, emptied threats.
Blue bottles flown up in a cloud, thrumming—
angry we’ve disturbed their heaven on earth.
Jaguar Answers Questions about Disappearing
by Suzette Bishop
Who eats you? You don’t eat me. I am eaten by parasites.
Why do you stop eating? I starve if my fangs are broken.
How did we divorce? You used to do everything to show your reverence for me, even file your teeth into
fangs. Now you scare me and take over my land.
What have we forgotten? How I’ve kissed up to the gods to keep order going for you. How I keep the world
energy cycling as night and day.
What do you remember? Lost civilizations, a city shaped like me.
Who punished you? The Creator ordered me to fetch water, and I couldn’t with my paws. So the Creator
made you in the meantime and told me I just had to deal with it. I come back to the trap
Who will punish us? The spirit of the jaguar god will punish you for killing our earthly form. It will edge up
on the mud00one0000000000two000000000000000three00000and pounce.
Susan Richardson is a poet, performer and educator, whose third collection, skindancing, themed around human-animal metamorphosis and both our intimacy with, and alienation from, the wild and our animal selves, has just been published by Cinnamon Press. She is Zoomorphic’s poetry editor and poet-in-residence with the global animal welfare initiative World Animal Day. The above poem was written for World Animal Day as part of her residency and this current issue of Zoomorphic, themed around animal welfare and endangered species, is dedicated to the day too.
Pat Gregory is a printmaker, illustrator and crafter, and earns the rest of her living through action research. She has exhibited in Wales and England for over 25 years and produces a range of cards. Her current obsession is with the Roundhouse project, a group of friends who have bought some land near Cardiff to support biodiversity whilst developing an orchard, a forest garden and woodland management skills. Website: patgregory.co.uk Facebook: Pat Gregory Art
Kathleen McClung is the author of Almost the Rowboat. Her poems appear in Mezzo Cammin, Unsplendid, Atlanta Review, A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows and Ravens, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Kathleen teaches at Skyline College and the Writing Salon. www.kathleenmcclung.com
Kristin Stoner is an English Lecturer at Iowa State University. Her most recent work can be found in Red Rose Review and Mojave River Review. She resides in Des Moines, Iowa with her patient husband and energetic dog.
Roselle Angwin is a well-published Westcountry poet, author and ecopsychologist. As leader of the popular Fire in the Head holistic writing courses and The Wild Ways ecobardic programme, she offers courses on Dartmoor and Exmoor, in Cornwall, on the Isle of Iona (the setting for this poem) and in France. See www.thewildways.co.uk and www.fire-in-the-head.co.uk
Suzanne Marie Iuppa is a poet, community worker and filmmaker who lives in North Wales. She grew up in America before coming to University of Manchester to study modern British poetry in the 1980s. Suzanne also gained a degree in Countryside Management and worked as a ranger in the Clywdian Mountains, where she has been based for 25 years. Her current work supports rare species conservation (in particular, the pine marten) with The Vincent Wildlife Trust.
Suzette Bishop teaches at Texas A&M International University. Her books include Horse-Minded, She Took Off Her Wings and Shoes, Hive-Mind. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies and received Honorable Mention in the Pen 2 Paper Contest and first place in the Spoon River Poetry Review Contest.
On the half hour walk between our cottage and the seabird sanctuary at the far northeast tip of the island, Luis would spontaneously stop and educate us on the flowers growing along the scruff of verge. The torrentil: a tiny yellow thing with five petals around the stamen, which could be chewed as remedy for a poor stomach. And ophrys apifera: the orchid which has evolved bee-like flowers from which it gets its name, drawing in its pollinating mate with the promise of love. Flowering lives among grass awed Luis (said ‘Lewis’) and thus us too. Long-haired and always with a guitar slung over his shoulder like a bandolier, Luis was in exile from a failed love affair back in Andalusia, but was anyway more taken with British shrubby cinque foil and silver weed, and afternoons, once the sanctuary closed, swimming in cold black inland pools overlooking the Irish sea.
Luis came each summer to this seabird sanctuary on Rathlin Island as volunteer coordinator, to shape and arrange us in taking care of the tourists and birders, children and grandparents. He was good with flowers and people, but Luis set his eyes to the birds, too. His gaze sharpened to spot the stars of this stage without the need for telescope or binoculars. He knew when the last puffin had truly gone out to sea, toward the end of August. And he taught me to spot the young peregrine sitting two hundred yards up and away along a selvedge of rock, peering over the inlet. The petrol blue, nervy hunchback cuffed into a hole or sat on a ledge was almost impossible to spot. Luis offered the binoculars and pointed me towards him. Seek, scan, and then: yes! There he sat, the adolescent falcon, looking down on the scallop of seaworn courtyard that was, during the summer months, its main source of hoped-for prey: the guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars who called this shelter home, in their thousands.
In April 1852, while fishing from the bank of a river, Henry David Thoreau spotted a hawk too, “soaring like a ripple and tumbling like a rod.” It reminded Thoreau of nobleness and poetry. “It appeared to have no companion in the universe—sporting there alone—and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played. It was not lonely but made all the earth lonely below it.” My peregrine sat in similar fashion. It was a tiercel, not yet one year old, born to a pair who bred in a scrape a few coves over. The peregrines were well known at the sanctuary, which must have provided the falcons and their offspring with plenty of flesh. Despite their migratory nature (the name peregrine comes from ‘to wander’) this family had been on the island for a decade, although many chicks had flown off to the mainland and other islands. (On a clear day you can see the whisky distillery on Islay.) The chicks did not survive every year. The threat was no longer pesticides and DDT—where peregrines would “die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” as J. A. Baker wrote in his 1967 classic The Peregrine. Now the threat was about learning how to hunt. Its prey—the seabird chicks—were suffering a shortage of food, and falling in numbers. The sanctuary was, to uninitiated visitors like myself, a mesmerising cacophony of feather and guano and hullabaloo. But to those who counted each year, the birds were fewer and fewer.
I’d volunteered that summer in my desire to come closer to birds. I’d grown up an urban child. I had been kept out of the rain, a life spent in flats on suburban streets. I was not a child of nature, did not run free in woods. I knew no names of trees nor, despite studying Latin, the genus of avian worlds. I grew up into an intellectual with publications and a library, but did not know how paper was milled. I’d never got lost in a forest. I knew no origins of myths or fairy tales. As an adult I’d come to understand that my anxious “getting-on” and city-based social habits were not what I wanted nor needed. A catarrh was caked around my senses. It was a grime of comfort, and the only cleanser would be woodland scent and bog and mud, the scrape of screech and wipe of howl. So I hoped. The promise of nature is that it takes a pickaxe to the body cast in that constricting plaster (of London, or Paris…). Yet the soil inside is still fertile. So dig. Grow things: passions, practices, loves.
I’d not grown up understanding my responsibilities to the animate world. But I was not without hope for learning. Baker himself said, “I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision.” Birds, I learnt, are unequalled in their ability to bring us swiftly to grace. “They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us,” writes Baker. “Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach.” I wanted to reach out a hand and feel the feathers as they beat by, hoped the birds could teach me something. And perhaps we are more like them than Baker gives them credit. “They race to oblivion,” he says. Remembering Rachel Carson’s “heedless pace of man,” so do we.
I came for the birds. Many did. The other volunteers were bird watchers and nature lovers, zoology students looking for credits, men in their fifties having found a peculiar way to get some rest from “the family” and who taught us about The Troubles of Northern Ireland, the intricate cabals even in a community as small as this one (a hundred island residents); the cemetery walls set ten foot down to separate factions even after death. Then there were the visitors: day trippers and canoeists, families with fascinated and apathetic children in equal measure. There was the German couple in their mid-twenties, perfect skin and blond hair, despondent until they spotted some late-leaving puffins, who stayed five hours and danced like children watching these most charismatic of birds spin their wide gyres with palpitating wings and streaks of rainbows for beaks. And once, even, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and entourage, the sea vistas making a bright photo op to the darker backdrop of politics.
The sanctuary was not a fully hands-on experience. We came close to the birds but we did not get our overalls dirty, ringing legs or clearing habitat. That work happened at the other end of the island. There, conservationists took care of a rare family of choughs—blackbird-like corvids with a bright orangey-red beak, who do indeed sing chough, chough, chough as they torpedo by. On this sanctuary, the inhabitants—like all wild birds—were protected by law but not aided by hand. And yet I felt immersed in their lives, and in the quieter moments (before the first minibus of people arrived and the last had left) I had time to stand and watch life happen—which meant also to watch the happenstance of death.
It was not the peregrine who delivered my first moment to witness an act of predation. We were all prepared, with a macabre sense of the inevitable, for the peregrine to dive and catch its prey. But during those weeks either he never quite managed, or I didn’t see it. I caught once his attempt and then abort at a wishful effort—even a fledgling peregrine’s dive is an act of awful vertical specificity. It was, instead, the prosaic but more successful predators that instituted the quick deaths. The gulls.
Lesser and great black-backed laridae flew in and sat in their stately arrogance on the rocks and grassy hillocks. Huge birds in comparison to everything else, bar the gannets further out, following the fishing boats or spotting a shoal of mackerel and folding themselves into bolts of white lightning to spear the water. Angry guillemot parents, if they gathered in gang, could scare off the gulls. But there were too many lapses in the everyday struggle for food, too many hours the nesting pair had to be out fishing for them to keep constant watch on their curious growing chicks.
The timing so happened that I was, one slow afternoon, scanning lazily through bins when a guillemot chick emerged from its nest and a gull caught it by its short neck. The gull shook it around—not enough to kill—and ate it alive and whole. I was transfixed. Alive. It would suffocate sooner than be digested. But that was all I imagined. This verity of hunting left me void of thought—there was nothing poetic or tragic in the chick’s fate, merely a blank, deadpan natural knowledge best, or at least better, accounted for by physics: the conversion of energy from one form into another.
I had helped nurture a gull chick earlier that summer. My writing garret looks over the roof of the ground floor car park of an office block. This corrugated inner sanctum, not so much edgeland as scrapsquare, is home to air conditioning outlets and incongruous metal sheds, outrageously proud buddleia and wild grasses nestled into brickwork, a family of pigeons, and a pair of black-backed gulls and their mottled chick. They nested on a high perch at the very top of the wall. The chick tumbled one day down to the car park roof on its first fledge. There it sat with semi-useless wings, and I did not know if it had been lost or abandoned. Its high pitched sweeee was constant and insatiable, so I fed it scraps: bites of nectarine and slices of banana. I bought a bag of frozen prawns and hurled these out into the arena. I watched the fledgling learn that this was food (I automatically saw him as ‘he’) and, slowly, carefully, looking first around and then above him, edge towards the meal, and swallow chunks whole. I wondered whether gulls could eat bananas—fearing the potassium might explode in his gut like Alka Seltzer—but then realized, with how gulls now survive, this was probably the healthiest eating chick in all of urban Britain.
I need not have worried. After a day of interrupted and woeful writing I saw a parent return. The chick fenced at the beak for food. The parent moved around trying to find space, in which it regurgitated its meal. The chick gobbled up the grey maw, returned to battering its parent’s beak. But the full grown gull was off again, searching for human food waste to guzzle down, and the chick, sweeeeing, flapped its wings and attempted a take off before settling in the centre of the square. The pigeons kept their distance.
When I saw the black-backed gull on Rathlin Island swallow the guillemot chick, I thought back to this young gull I’d nurtured those weeks before. How over the next few days its parents came back with more food; how he learnt to fly; how he left his nest to forage; how he might live for fifteen years; how his parents, mated for life, might return to this spot again to nest, while he would seek out his own mate, spend his life at sea, go to Europe, and raise his own chicks, seeking out a life in some sprawling urban future. The swallowed guillemot chick was simply a more natural diet for this cause: life.
These were the quick deaths. There were also the slow. And of the slow, there were those we knew about but did not see, and those we bore witness to every day.
The invisible deaths were not noted through our binoculars but could still be measured. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills spend most of their year at sea, bobbing on the water and diving for their prey, such as sandeel. But due to a rise in ocean temperatures caused by climate change, and overfishing, food sources have declined or moved on. The birds often starve to death, scrawny puffin bodies washing up on shores in their thousands. The Atlantic puffin is now at threat of disappearing completely from European waters. But what news is this? One in five European birds is at similar threat, including another of the residents on the sanctuary.
The fulmar is a graceful seabird. A member of the procellariidae family, related to petrels and albatrosses, it does not have angled wings like the kittiwake or herring but rather stretches out its stiffened wingspan like the yardstick my granddad kept handy for rapping the table to keep us quiet. The fulmar circles effortlessly along cliff faces like a silent glimmer. It nests on edges and lays one egg. It can live for up to forty years. One pair had nested right by our lookout point, ten or fifteen feet from the guardrail. It was so close we could see it in bright detail, but far enough away for it to be unreachable. We watched the chick—almost ready to fledge—wait for its parents to return. But in all the time we watched they returned only once. Slowly the chick wasted away, and I mistook the curve of its long tube nose for a stoic smile. I wanted to throw it some sandwich, a bite of fruit. But Luis, ever the more experienced steward, knew this would be of no use. Without at least one parent, the chick had no chance of learning what it needed to survive. So we watched it die.
As I move from urban to natural worlds for my own survival, the gull, much more versatile and adaptable than the puffin or fulmar but no less a vulnerable chick or diligent parent, has come the other way. We meet, dance around each other. Yet the gull has trodden on too many toes. It is not a welcome migrant to our cities. This, despite all we have done to encourage it in. The “aggressive” herring gulls of Hastings and St. Ives, the “threatening” black-backeds of Brighton and Hove, have caused public outcry. The gulls are ruining our holidays! (A bit like the migrants ruining British package deals on Kos?) The gulls are stealing our ice creams! (No one seems to be concerned for who we stole that cream from in the first place.) This has led the protector of wild life, Natural England, to offer “death licences” for the culling of lesser black-backed gulls, and the destruction of herring gull nests. Not, they say, simply where gulls cause a nuisance or damage property, but where there is a threat to public health and safety. You do not need to apply for this licence, but simply meet its conditions. Who will police these culls? Who will claim unpoetic licence to define “public safety”?
Our common understanding of the “cull” is very modern. In relation to the destruction of animals “deemed inferior” it goes back only to 1934. Before this, the word meant “to select, pick, gather the best things”—especially literary selections. There is also a meaning of the word that relates to a person as a “dupe, saphead or rogue”—from the old French coillon, meaning “testicle; worthless fellow, dolt,” to some, but also with less pejorative meaning. In other uses, the cull was merely gullible.
In her award-winning memoir that intertwines the death of her father with the training of a goshawk, and the histories of grief and falconry therein, Helen Macdonald has, like J.A Baker before her, written a love letter to one particular animal. Yet Macdonald dismisses out of hand Baker’s The Peregrine as a lesser book, one of no value, rubbish in fact. Perhaps this is because, typical of her book in laying claim to an outdated transcendentalism in the tradition of Walden, Macdonald’s goshawk is the “true” hawk and the peregrine is merely lesser. What would she make of the puffin, the guillemot, the gull, the pigeon? Macdonald treats the pheasants she hunts and the frozen day-old chicks, cast offs of the egg industry, that she feeds “Mabel,” as lesser birds also. Not worth her love, nor protective effort. She channels her industry into breaking the goshawk to human servitude, unwilding the very wild to be of service to her in her grief; a pet. Macdonald’s book claims that this is the only way we will protect nature: that we must come to know it closely, and so love it. But rather than go to nature, she brings it to herself. She claims it, owns it. What use is this when one’s love for nature keeps it tightly drawn to parochial and patriarchal human concerns, a proclamation of the value of what we define: that the hawk is nature; the pheasant raised as game is not nature. The peregrine is lesser nature. The frozen chick is not nature.
And the gull? That lives in the city? Is he nature? Or lesser?
The gullible boy seeking nature outside of the city? Is he?
Love for these “lesser” birds is no less important to how we respond to the crises we face than the peregrine or the gos. Most of us will never train a hawk. But all of us can turn to commoner birds in understanding our responsibilities toward animate life. The peregrine and goshawk capture the imagination of the great naturalists, but how we treat the gull is more likely to determine our future. And the fulmar, the frozen day-old chick? Birds surround us, are they any lesser for that? Did not we invite them in, often with coercion? As Baker knew well in his grail-like quest to know the peregrine, and the world in which it lives: “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.”
Dr Alex Lockwood is a writer based in the North East of England. He has published widely on environmental issues and animal studies; in 2014 he guest-edited the ‘Men and Nature’ issue of Earthlines. He is a Winston Churchill Travel Fellow, and is writing a book on climate change and animal agriculture.
I watched the boat head up the Las Piedras river towards me, the forest behind it hulking black in the gathering dusk. Spray leapt from its bow and the steady hum of the engine grew louder. Above, swifts jinked in a lurid sky already pricked with stars. I wondered if the men were returning with fish for dinner. As the canoe slowed and veered towards the shore I could hear Chachon’s high, querulous voice over the motor. With a gritty hiss, the boat ploughed a furrow up the sloping beach and came to a stop. Wilfredo, the tripulante, jumped off, the painter and tangana in his hands. He pounded a hole in the sand with the long pole and looped the rope around it to secure the boat.
I stood and brushed off my trousers. Frank joined me and together we walked to the canoe.
“Any luck?” I asked.
Smiling in answer, Wilfredo leant over the side of the boat and, arm muscles straining, half-lifted a large zungaro for us to admire. The mottled, olive-green catfish grunted deeply, its small eyes blank.
“Que belleza.” I stroked its glistening flank with regret. But we had already been in the Peruvian rainforest for two weeks and needed the protein to supplement our food supplies. Together, Frank and Wilfredo carried it up the beach to camp.
Chachon began to rinse the floorboards, sloshing water from a rusty tin can. He kept his boat in meticulous order. In his early fifties and a born river man, he was compact and agile, had rheumy, currant eyes and a Sean Connery lisp, and relished a good story.
As he worked, something small and dark caught my eye, moving against the wet wood. It looked like a fluttering leaf but the air was still. I moved closer. Yes, it was definitely alive. I bent forward to touch it and a tiny mouth opened in mute protest.
A bat. I grouped my fingers around its bedraggled body and gently placed it in my other hand. It shivered, and damp, naked wings clung and spread like an ink stain across my palm. I marvelled at the thin film of skin. Its forearms and ears were also hairless and a tiny tail protruded from a membrane attached to its hind legs. There was no sign of any injury.
“Mira, Chachon. Un murcielago.”
Chachon interrupted his bailing to look.
“Pucha! That’s good bait. I should put it on a hook and catch another juicy fish.” His voice was scornful as he turned away. “Those things are demonios. They bring bad luck.”
I cupped the soaked bat and brought my hands to my chest.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Míralo! How can that bring bad luck? I’m going to look after it.”
Inside the tent I shared with Frank, I clamped my torch on my head and rummaged amongst my things until I found a clean t-shirt which I fashioned into a snug nest. I deposited the bat in the middle, where it looked more helpless than ever. Perhaps it was a baby. How on earth did such a scrap manage to find itself in the bottom of the boat? And how was I going to keep it alive?
I decided my first priority was to get the bat warm and dry. We had set up camp an hour earlier and the sand under the tent still radiated the sun’s heat. It wasn’t enough though. A hot water bottle, that was what I needed. I crawled out and headed to the grandly named kitchen. The thermos stood on the folding table and I hefted it in my hand. It was almost full. In our basket of cooking implements, I found an empty plastic bottle and filled it with hot water from the thermos. I had to juggle the bottle as I carried it back to the tent. Gingerly, I balanced the nest against it and folded a sleeve over the whole to keep in the warmth. A drop of sweat fell from the tip of my nose and a dark spot bloomed on the t-shirt fabric below me.
I left the tent and stood at the entrance, enjoying the cool, night air. A mosquito pinged in my ear and a tinamou, the forest’s avian wood instrument, hooted forlornly on the other side of the river. The men had started a fire to cook the fish. Sparks spat around their faces as they took turns to breathe life into the embers. Chachon’s gleeful cackle rang out and I suspected he was telling another of his tall tales. So far, we’d heard about the thirty-kilo, horned, fanged frog that lurked in the jungle, and the time he’d prepared ceviche in his rubber boot for a bunch of high profile visitors because the expedition had neglected to bring cutlery and tableware. It was difficult to know how much was fact and how much imagination. He spoke with such earnest conviction, yet his eyes sparkled with devilry.
I sat next to Frank and stretched my legs towards the fire. “What do bats eat?” I asked.
“Depends on the bat, I think. Some sip nectar and others eat fruits. And vampires, of course, drink blood.”
He looked at me. “Why do you ask?”
“We’ve got a baby bat in the tent.”
“We do? How did it get in?”
“I found it in the bottom of the boat. I’m going to raise it.”
Frank was silent. I knew what he was thinking. But I also knew what he would say.
“Well, you can try, I guess.”
I smiled at him gratefully and pointed at Chachon with my chin. “If it was up to him he’d use it as fish bait.”
“Probably the kindest thing.” Frank wasn’t sentimental about animals either. Then he caught sight of my frown and sighed. “Okay, how and what are you going to feed it?”
“Don’t know, I’ve no idea what this bat species eats. It’s a pity we left our mammal guide behind.” I leaned back and watched a satellite track across the Milky Way.
“The fire seems about ready,” Frank said. “Wilfredo’s almost finished cleaning the zungaro.”
“Mmm. Are we having it fried or in a tomato st— Wait, I’ve got an idea!”
I leapt to my feet and ran to our medical barrel. Flinging off the lid, I scrabbled among the contents until I found what I wanted.
“A syringe.” I brandished it under Frank’s mystified face.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“No time!” I yelled over my shoulder, and ran to where Wilfredo was cutting up the fish.
“Wilfredo,” I panted, as my knees thudded into the sand next to him. “Do you have any blood?”
He sat back on his heels, knife in hand, and looked at me in alarm.
“Esta bien, never mind.” I sifted quickly amongst the ragged pieces of flesh and spotted a small pool of blood. Even as I sucked it up with the syringe it started to congeal.
Thanking Wilfredo, I ran back to the tent, fumbled the zip up, and threw myself in. The bat lay huddled in a fold of the t-shirt, its grizzled fur now dry and fuzzy. Wagging the tip of the syringe under its nose, I allowed a drop of the gloopy blood to touch it. A sliver of tongue emerged. I tried again. Again, the bat licked its sharp nose. But too soon the blood became a sticky, glutinous mess and seemed to exhaust rather than revive it. I gave up. It needed rest. The bottle was still warm so I tucked the bat in, rinsed the syringe carefully with soap, and returned to the fire.
Sitting on a piece of driftwood, Chachon was in full flow, his deeply furrowed face animated, his cheap, shiny green shorts gaping under hairy thighs.
Wait, had I imagined it? Was that… I glanced at Frank to see if he’d noticed.
“Oye, Chachon! You’re giving your balls an airing!”
I squirmed with embarrassment; trust Frank to be blunt. But Chachon merely looked down, grinned sheepishly, and dropped his legs. The men burst into gales of laughter. Chachon’s eyes glinted at me in the firelight. He loved nothing better than a good joke, whether on him or someone else.
“Speaking of which, let me tell you how Wilfredo and I caught that fine fish you’re about to eat.” He gestured with his fork at the steaming plates of rice and stew Wilfredo was handing out.
“We couldn’t find any good pools along the banks, so when we spotted the trunk of a tree sticking out the middle of the river, we decided to tie the boat to it and fish in the channel. But I didn’t have enough space to cast my line; the tree got in the way.” Chachon paused as he manoeuvred a fish bone in his mouth and spat it out. He sucked air through his teeth, then cleaned his moustache with his lower lip.
I looked around the glowing, friendly faces of the men and heaved a sigh of contentment. Smoke from the fire smudged the indigo sky, the river murmured its secrets nearby, and tomorrow would bring more of the same.
“I thought I’d try climbing onto the tree. It was a bit tricky to get up there, but I found a good spot to sit. As I bent down, there was a ripping sound.” Wilfredo snorted. Chachon’s expression was more impish than ever.
“I checked my shorts; everything seemed normal,” he continued. “So I tried to make myself comfortable because the bark of that tree was corrugating my ass. And then I heard the ripping sound again, followed by a splash. A piece of the bark had come loose and fallen in the water.” Chachon began to giggle.
A large moth blundered into the flames and flailed briefly before shrivelling to a husk. I winced.
“Carajo, next thing I knew, a cloud of bats spurted from under my balls!” Chachon thumped his knee in delight. He was the only person I’d ever known who giggled like a character in a comic book.
“Hundreds of them! Darting between my legs in all directions. I was so surprised I flipped over backwards into the water!” Now Chachon was almost incoherent, tears seeping along the wrinkles on his cheeks.
“Wilfredo had to help me out,” he spluttered. “And that’s where that demonio of yours” –here he looked at me– “must’ve come from. Somehow, it fell off its mother and got stuck in my… my… hee, hee hee… my… sho-oorts!” This last with a loud, wailing gasp. We were all rolling in the sand by now, an island of hilarity in a moonlit sea of rainforest, tickled as much by the image of a startled Chachon with bats flitting around his groin, as by the spectacle of his own mirth.
Later, I mixed some milk powder with lukewarm, boiled water and brought it into the tent with me. I’d decided the bat was male, though it was impossible to tell, and that I’d call him Demonio, just to tease Chachon. I knew babies needed to be fed every few hours so I set my alarm, and re-set it several times during the night. It was difficult to see if any of the milk was ending up inside Demonio but he seemed more alert. In between syringe feeds I curled my body around his nest to help hold in the warmth, and worried about squashing him.
Over the next days I subjected Demonio to a diet of fish blood (when I could get hold of it), milk of various dilutions (was bat milk rich or thin?), sugared water, and essence of crushed insect. I figured varied was best. He not only survived, but thrived. During the day I kept him in my shirt pocket or in a sock hanging from the roof of the boat and at night I hung his sock from a hook inside the tent. Somehow, though his eyes were the size of linseeds, he recognised me, and only me, whenever I came near, and squeaked with excitement. I had no idea bats could be so endearing.
Chachon mocked me relentlessly. “I don’t know why I put up with that bat in my boat. Give it to me now so I can catch a nice fish for dinner,” he’d say. “What a useless animal. Why waste so much time on it? It’s just a pest!”
I ignored him but kept a close eye on my bat. Demonio grew rapidly and became more active. One day, about a week after I found him, he seemed restless, half-spreading his wings and making feeble, flapping motions. Was he in pain?
I called Frank over. After a few moments he rolled his eyes at me. “Call yourself a biologist. Your bat’s getting ready to fly, you nitwit.”
Of course! I grimaced at Frank and focused on Demonio. His attempts at lifting himself into the air were pathetic. How could I help him? He needed somewhere high from which to launch himself. My eye fell on the tangana, jammed into the sand to tie our boat. Slender and two metres tall, it was just what Demonio needed. And the sand would make a soft landing.
I grasped the bat between my fingers and perched him on the top of the pole. Then I stepped back. Demonio clung desperately with his splinter-like nails, teetered, and dropped to the ground like a rotten fruit. I shook my head.
“No, no, no. Come on, Demonio. You’re a bat. Bats fly.” He squeaked plaintively. Hardening my heart, I picked him up and we tried again, with the same result. It was no good. He wasn’t ready. I wondered if mother bats taught their young to fly. If so, we were in trouble. Our journey was drawing to a close. I had ten days left in which to rehabilitate Demonio, ten days before we’d return to civilisation. What if he didn’t learn to fly in time? I couldn’t take him with me to Lima, where we lived, and yet I couldn’t abandon him in his own home, the rainforest, either.
The following morning I tried again. But it was clear his wings were a mystery to Demonio.
Chachon’s voice startled me. “Como esta Demonio esta mañana?”
I turned around, scowling, expecting another jibe about the evils of bats. But Chachon was silent as he looked down at Demonio.
“I’m worried,” I said, smoothing the bat’s velvety forehead with the back of my finger. To my surprise, Chachon nodded in sympathy, then walked away without further comment. I stared after him.
Over the following week I exercised Demonio at every opportunity, turning a deaf ear to his frantic protests, spreading his wings over my palms to show what was expected of him and tossing him lightly into the air, over and over again. The men watched with inscrutable expressions.
Then, one lunchtime, instead of simply allowing himself to fall, Demonio rustled his wings and landed in a tangle of limbs a couple of metres from the bottom of the pole.
“Yes!” I shouted. The men jerked their heads up from their dishes. “Look! He’s trying!” I was bursting with pride.
After that I doubled my efforts and Demonio made rapid progress. He was stronger now, his wings beating with purpose. He finally knew what to do.
The afternoon before we were due to arrive in Puerto Maldonado, it was my turn to cook dinner. All we had left was a bag of pasta, a large onion, two tins of tuna, and a mouldy tomato. I put water on the stove, and began chopping the onion while the men finished setting up the tents. A thin, malicious whine emanated from the forest, and I imagined mosquitoes in their millions, biding their time. It would be sheer bliss to sleep in a proper bed tomorrow, after a cold beer and a pizza.
“Ouch!” Blood welled from my finger. I was distracted and irritable and I knew why. Looking down at my shirt pocket, I saw Demonio’s black eyes shining up at me from its depths. His pointy nose made small questing movements. He still hadn’t flown properly and I was at a loss what to do with him. My dilemma made me grumpy.
Chachon sat next to me, wordlessly sipping his coffee. I put the second half of the onion face down on the chopping board and began to hack at it. My eyes stung. When I’d finished, I rose to drop the knife and board in a bucket of water standing nearby. Bending forwards, a small gust of wind brushed my throat and I glimpsed a movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning, I watched Demonio waft into the air, like a dark flake of ash. He wobbled and lurched sideways, then gained height steadily. We stared after him in wonder and my eyes burned.
Soon he had vanished and I knew he would not be back.
Sensing Chachon’s bright gaze on me, I glanced at him and sniffled.
“Damn, those onions are strong.”
Jessica Groenendijk is a Dutch biologist turned conservationist and writer. She was born in Colombia, have lived in Burkina Faso, Holland, Tanzania and England, crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice on a sailboat between the ages of 6 and 10, worked with black rhinos in Zambia and giant otters in Peru, and now lives in Cusco. She is a keen reader, adventurous traveller, and amateur photographer of people, wildlife and landscapes. She is also a big believer in reconnecting children and their families to nature – www.jessicagroenendijk.com