Archive for February 2012

‘Midnight: The Coyote, Down in the Mouth’ by Tim Seibles

February 28, 2012

As my regular readers have undoubtedly discerned, I have certain urban animal species on the brain. Rats, raccoons and coyotes, among others, roil the mental waters. In the throes of fascination, I call on science, art and poetry.

Urban Coyote with Rat by Atty Gell.

An earlier post quoted Stanley Kunitz’s marvelous poem, Raccoon Journal.  Today it’s time for coyotes to get lyrical.

I recently came across this reading by Tim Seibles of his poem, Midnight: The Coyote, Down in the Mouth. It’s a wonderful reading, best heard, I think, without the accompanying images. But since I couldn’t find a purely audio version to share, here is the poem, illustrated and animated to within an inch of its life. You don’t have to watch, only listen. And enjoy.

You may read the poem here in Seibles’ book, Hammerlock, which you can buy here, or order from your local independent bookseller. Mine is BookCulture on West 112th Street.

A Tribute to Two Cats

February 25, 2012

Cats and humans may have been living together for as long as 10,000 years. In 2004, researchers found the remains of a cat and a human buried together in a 9,500 year-old gravesite in Cyprus.

By that timescale, the dozen years my family and our two cats lived together are microscopic, almost undetectable. But those twelve and a half years were, as it turned out, feline lifetimes. Our cats died this month, two weeks apart, and today I’m finding it hard to remember life before Pudding and Leia.

Born in an East Dallas warehouse in the relentless heat of a Texas summer, the kittens were taken in by a rescuer who cared for them, along with two other feral litters, until they were old enough to be adopted. We were the lucky ones who took them home.

To the uninitiated, the cats resembled each other,

Leia on the left, Pudding on right with half-moustache.

but they couldn’t have been more different.

Pudding was a big lug of a cat, sweet-tempered and laid-back, the kind of guy you might find in the corner bar, buying a pitcher of beer for his buds.

Big lug.

All his life, Pudding adored my son, hustling to the door when he got home from school and hanging out in his room, like a pal.

Leia, on the other hand, was the runt. Until her last years, she spent an inordinate amount of time hiding in closets, avoiding contact with people. Except for me. Leia was crazy about me.  Head over heels.  Smitten. Gaga. She’d gaze at me as I worked with a slightly demented intensity, like an over-needy lover desperate for an opening.

I loved her dearly, but I avoided looking in her direction, since even inadvertent eye contact could unleash a feline litany of demands, reproaches and yearnings. One night, as my husband tried to read, my son filmed Leia and me.

The apartment has grown suddenly larger with the loss of these two creatures. Small in body, and large in spirit, they gave us joy. We miss them.

Rest in peace, Pudding and Leia.

Urban Wildlife Valentine Video

February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine’s Day from Out Walking the Dog!

(Please click on the arrow. And feel free to visit OutWalkingtheDogNYC’s Youtube channel.)

If you’d like to know more about the love life of urban birds, you may enjoy reading:
Sex and the City Bird
Sex and the Pigeon
The Pigeons Outside my Window

Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral

February 13, 2012

Once upon a time, cats were common fixtures in NYC stores, greeting customers in the doorway of the fishmonger or lounging in a patch of sunlight among resoled boots in the display window of the shoe repair store. The corner deli, the candy store, and the Chinese laundry – Manhattan’s equivalent to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker – each had a resident feline.

They weren’t pets, these cats. They were working animals, who paid for their room and board by working nights in rodent control, and days in customer development, allowing people like me to scratch their ears.

Several cats still work my stretch of Broadway. Most impressive is the fine, fat beast attached to Samad’s Gourmet between 111th and 112th Street. Friendly and self-assured, the cat loafs outside the store in fine weather, and has been seen trundling into neighboring shops, just to say hello.  On a mild January day, it helped out in the sales department of the neighborhood vintage record seller.

Would you buy a used record from the cat?

But not all neighborhood cats are living the good life of Samad’s cat.

Ten days ago, I encountered this black cat on the retaining wall of Riverside Park.

Maybe the cat is on the lam from a nearby apartment. Or maybe it’s a member of Riverside Park’s small feral cat colony, which shares an indoor space with the occasional homeless person.

Riverside Park cat colony. Photo from April 2010.

Volunteers have trapped each animal, and taken it to a veterinarian where it is neutered or spayed before being returned to the park. By preventing the cats from breeding, the proponents of the Trap-Neuter-Return program hope the colony will eventually die out.

Feral cat in Riverside Park, 2010.

Meanwhile the volunteers quietly provide food and water,

Who else eats at this buffet?

and advocate for the protection of the cats.

A hodgepodge of baskets and boxes

I don’t know how many cats are cared for in Riverside Park, although I have never seen more than three.

But surely, as the presence of the black cat on the wall indicates, there will always be a new recruit, whether an unwanted pet dumped in the park, or a runaway in search of greener pastures, finding its way to the easily accessible food and shelter.

Across the country, there is a dawning awareness that domestic cats, both feral and pet, are fierce and effective predators that can have a devastating affect on birds and other wildlife. A recent study cited by the American Bird Conservancy estimates that cats may be responsible for over half a billion bird deaths each year. Approximately half of that astonishing number is attributed to feral cats and the other half – that’s 250,000 dead birds – to pet cats that are allowed outside. Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute told the New York Times in 2011, “Cats are way up there in terms of threats to birds — they are a formidable force in driving out native species.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love cats.

Pudding (1999-2012), an indoor city cat, ponders what to read next.

But if cats are truly an invasive species causing potentially serious harm to the ecosystem, then free-roaming cats raise surprisingly complex and far-reaching questions, among them how to ethically and humanely manage feral cat colonies and even our own pet cats.

Feral cats are found all over New York City in parks, parking lots and alleys between buildings.

A small colony lives in Morningside Park. With its population of ground-nesting birds, its rough terrain and bushy undergrowth, Morningside is well-suited to the little feline predators.

White cat soaks up some rays on a mild January day in Morningside Park.

On Randall’s Island, in the shadow of the Triborough – er, I mean, the RFK – Bridge, a marmalade kitten stretches,

while its sibling, or friend, keeps pale green watch on passing humans.

Two grown cats groom and watch the world go by from an East Harlem lot,

while a few blocks away, on a rare grassy patch, two kittens hone their predatory skills with a game of hunter-and-prey.

Readers, I welcome your thoughts on cats, both feral and pet.

Urban Raccoons in Winter

February 8, 2012

I hadn’t seen the raccoons that live in the Riverside Park retaining wall for some time.

Nice view.

I believe their numbers were cut down during the great raccoon rabies epidemic of 2010.  I once saw as many as six raccoons come out of this hole, like clowns from a clown car.  But lately, I’ve seen only two.

Two waschbären, or wash bears, as the Germans call raccoons. (from my archives)

And for the past few weeks, I haven’t seen any.

The raccoon den in February 2011 after a snowstorm.

Watching raccoons in winter is a bit trickier than in spring or summer. In wintry weather, raccoons may curl up in their dens for days at a stretch, sleeping away the cold. But in a bizarrely mild winter like the current one, the reason I haven’t seen them is more likely due to the simple fact that I don’t walk regularly in the park after dark.

Raccoons, even in New York City, are primarily nocturnal creatures, emerging as the sun sets to start their day. In summer, when light lingers well after nine pm, they are easy to spot on a leisurely evening dog walk.

Riverside Park sunset over Hudson River

But in February, night closes in on the city before dinner, let alone before the evening walk.

Sparkling New Jersey

And though I love the park at night, caution has been etched into my city soul by growing up and living in Manhattan throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. I try to be reasonably cautious, limiting my night walks in the park which, in turn, limits my opportunities for raccoon sightings and other strange night visions.

A dog walks in the night park. (Its owner was not far behind.)

But after not seeing the raccoons for a while, I started to wonder: Are they healthy? Are they even there? So a couple of weeks ago, the dog and I went into the park shortly after dusk on several mild days to seek them.  And there they were, looking as healthy as ever. (I’ve enhanced the photos, as most were too dark to see.)

One raccoon was already a little distance north on the wall,

Wall walker

while the other seemed to be backing out of the den.

Backing out the front door

It turned around and took in the view. After watching for a while longer, we left.

Who's watching whom?

But wait. It was only later when I looked at my photos that I realized, a la David Hemming in Antonioni’s Blow-up, that there was a third pair of eyes, glowing in the darkness of the den.

Mystery glow.

Let’s enhance that photo, and see who’s there.

Aha. Revelation.

So it appears that at least three raccoons are living in the den this winter.

We’ll have to wait and see what spring brings.

Check out the archives for lots more on NYC raccoons!

Invasion of the Mitten Crabs

February 4, 2012


“from the depths of the sea … A TIDAL WAVE OF TERROR!”

Attack of the Crab Monsters, 1957

Chinese playwright and recent Columbia MFA gradate Zhu Yi, also known as Zoe, recently alerted me to an unusual presence in the Hudson River: Chinese Mitten Crabs.

According to Zhu Yi, mitten crabs are a delicacy in China.

Chinese mitten crab, aka Shanghai hairy crab. Photo from John H. Isacs.

But here in the United States, the Department for Environmental Conservation calls them “our newest Hudson River invader.” Zhu Yi plans to write a play using the mitten crab as a metaphor for our fear of invasion through immigration, which I will hope to see sometime soon.

Most exotic plants and animals, transported out of their native habitats, will not survive. But those that do survive may become invasive, which means they out-compete native species, reducing biodiversity, and changing the balance of local ecology. Often, there are no predators in the new environment to keep the population under control, and the species proliferates without the natural limits of its original habitat. Mitten crabs, which are causing serious environmental problems throughout Europe, are now being found in the Hudson River.

Named for their oddly furry claws, Chinese mitten crabs travel 7,000 miles from home to take up residence in North American waterways by stowing away in the ballast water of ships. Ballast water, it turns out, is a major source of the invasive species that are causing serious problems in our rivers, estuaries and lakes.

Ship discharging ballast water. Photo: World Wildlife Federation

Ships take on water for stability when cargo loads are low. When they pull into a port and load up on cargo, they discharge water that may have come from halfway around the world. Ballast water, which may be fresh, brackish or salt, is home to untold numbers of plants and animals – plankton, seaweeds, algae, invertebrates, bacteria – that are swept up into the ship’s hold, and later released in new environments.

Chinese mitten crab, up close and personal. Photo: S. Gollash

Mitten crabs are fascinating creatures. They spend most of their lives in fresh water, where they burrow into river or stream banks, causing soil erosion and habitat loss.  But they must travel each year back to the sea to mate. To do this, they walk. Yes, walk. Mitten crabs are “walking crabs,” able to travel long distances – “up to several hundred miles,” according to the DEC – over land by walking on the tips of their pointy claws. Londoners have described them coming up out of the Thames to walk the streets on their migration.

Still image from Attack of the Crab Monsters.

If you find or catch a Chinese mitten crab, the DEC has a few requests:

  • Do not release it back to the water
  • Keep it and freeze it (preserve in alcohol if you can’t freeze it)
  • Note date and location caught (GPS coordinates preferred but pinpointed on a map is acceptable) and how you caught it
  • If possible, take a close-up photo. You may e-mail photo to SERCMittenCrab@si.edu for identification.

Don’t eat it!  Mitten crabs, like some fish, can accumulate large amounts of heavy metals from their environment – and, after all, who knows where this crab has been?

Just don’t try telling that to the man and woman on the street in China, where a horrific new vending machine sells live packaged (probably farmed) crabs to subway commuters. They are kept cold enough that they are in a state of semi-hibernation, but still alive, sealed into tiny plastic containers.

Can you really wonder if the crabs have their revenge?


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