Archive for May 2011

Animals and the Rapture

May 20, 2011

So I was heading east last week from the Canal Street stop of the Number 1 train to Lupe’s East L.A. Kitchen

Destination Chili Verde and a Modelo Negro. (Lupe's is at Sixth Ave. & Watts: you know you want to try it.)

when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a bus proclaiming “Judgment Day: May 21 2011”.

Judgment Day warning rolls through SoHo and Tribeca

 Let’s take a closer look.

Oh, the Bible guarantees it. Well, that's different.

May 21st, 2011 is the most recently set date for the Rapture, when a relative handful of good Christians will be air-lifted up to Heaven while the rest of us stay below to suffer apocalyptic horrors that include floods (check), earthquakes (check), war (check), famine (sadly, always a going concern in this world) and many other disasters, man-made, natural and super-natural.

May 21, 2011.  Hey, wait a minute, that’s soon. Like, tomorrow.

Well, before you all go, I have a question: what about the animals?  I walk in the park every day, and can attest that the critters are blithely going about their animal business.

"Rapture? What Rapture?" Tufted titmouse in mid-April.

What’s in store for the animals after the Rapture?  Or can they come, too?

A Red-bellied woodpecker hunts for insects, not salvation.

An internet search reveals that many believers in an end date for the world have given real thought to the question of animals and the Rapture. Most of the concern is about pet animals, and the general consensus, often expressed with sadness, is that animals don’t have souls, or not the right kind of souls, and so will be left behind to suffer the Tribulations, as the dire post-Rapture period is called.

Soulless beast among blossoms.

The question of whether animals have souls is a vexed one in religions around the world and through the ages.  We won’t even talk about Descartes’ animal-machines here. As with most ideas, religious texts and tradition may be used to support any number of positions on the subject.  For many Christian American pet-lovers, the question seems to boil down to: Will I see my pet in heaven?  Sadly, for Rapture believers, the answer is no.

Concern over having to abandon beloved pets on Judgment Day has led to creative business opportunities for entrepreneurs.  After all, who’s going to feed Fido and Fluffy after you’re gone?  Well, you can pay ahead for Atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Bad Christians and other Left-Behinds to care in perpetuity (better get a clear definition of that term) for your animals. As the atheists of England’s Post-Rapture Pet Care say, “Just because we are atheists doesn’t mean we are not animal lovers.” Some of these offers are hoaxes, of course, but several seem, well, “legit” might be stretching it, but let’s just say, “serious.”  At least, they’re serious about taking the money – in advance, please, because your checkbook doesn’t work in heaven.

I’m guessing that if pets don’t make the Rapture cut, wildlife are way outside the salvation pale.

"Hey, what about me? Rapture me up, boys! Can't I come, too?"

I didn’t find much discussion of wildlife, other than as disaster statistics. As you can see on Rapture Watch‘s web page on wildlife deaths, animal deaths are used to bolster arguments that all signs point to the End.  No mention of big business, greed and lax government regulations, of oil spills, mass poisoning from pesticides and other toxic substances, habitat destruction, collisions with man-made structures or the myriad other human-caused wildlife hazards.  Animal deaths supplement the horrifying human suffering caused by earthquakes and war, and point the way to heaven.

If you’re leaving us tomorrow for the nature-free zone in the sky, be sure to bid farewell to geese and goslings

Cute don't buy no tickets on the Rapture train.

Say “Sayonara” to the night herons of Morningside Park

"Who wants to go to heaven if there aren't any fish?"

Wave good-bye to the sparrows of Saint John the Divine, where even nesting on saints can’t save ya.

Too cozy to leave, anyway.

And say “So long” to me.  I’m staying behind with the animals.

Staying put.

NOTE: Are you reading this article after May 21st?  Well, guess what? The end date is being recalculated, even as you read. Apparently, the math may have been off, but the end is still coming. And the animals still don’t care.

Seals and Silkies: Two Faces of Truth

May 19, 2011

Silkies: Faroe Island stamp

Some readers, I am learning, visit Out Walking the Dog for the bits of natural history behind my glimpses of wildlife in the city, while others prefer to focus on the sense of mystery and joy engendered by those glimpses. For me, it is all water from the same well; both the science and the poetry, far from being mutually exclusive, arise from wonder and feed each other.

In my last post, I talked about spottting seals on NYC and Long Island beaches and piers. I referenced experts, who emphasize giving seals plenty of distance and leaving them alone so as not to stress them.

There is another good reason not to become entangled with a stranded seal: it may be a silkie.

Gray Seal. Click the photo to visit the Irish Seal Sanctuary

Silkies, also called selkies, are seal-people, well-known in the mythology of northern Atlantic cultures including Ireland, Scotland and the Faroe Islands.  Silkies sometimes have love affairs with mortal men or women, and these are often tragic and always sorrowful, as Joan Baez sings in The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a haunting Scottish ballad.

In The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a silkie transforms into a man to become the lover of a mortal woman.  Later he disappears, and she bears a child.  One day, as she sings to her baby boy, the silkie reappears to tell her who he really is.

I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie on the sea
And when I’m far and far from land
My home it is in Sule Skerry.

The silkie tells the girl that he will come again one day to fetch his little boy “and teach him how to swim the foam.”  He then confides a terrible vision of the future:

And ye shall marry a gunner good,
And a right fine gunner, I’m sure he’ll be
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me.

In another silkie story, a fisherman watches a seal come ashore, take off its seal skin, and become  a beautiful young woman.  He hides the skin, without which she cannot transform back into a seal and must live as a woman. They marry, have children and live together for years. She gradually forgets her past life, although she is drawn to the sea by a powerful yearning.

Drawn to water. Photo by Melissa Cooper

One day, while her husband is out fishing, she comes across the skin in its hiding place and knows again the truth about who she is. Putting on the skin, she is a seal again and swims joyfully away into the waves.

photo by southgeist/

Still she misses her loved ones, and appears forever after in the waters close to shore, hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband and children.

Photo by NatureFramingham; click photo to see more.

Silkie stories riff on the profound connection between humans and animals, on our yearning to know what animals know, see what they see and, finally, on the sadness of our separation from the natural world. Of course, we are animals and part of nature, but we’re often the last to remember.

The Secret of Roan Inish: see it.

John Sayles’s wonderful 1996 movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, is a magical retelling of a silkie story.

And Neil Jordan’s 2010 film, Ondine, tells the story of a contemporary Irish fisherman, played by Colin Farrell, and the mysterious (and rather bizarrely fashion-conscious) seal-woman he brings up in his net.

You never know about seals. You just never know. Their lives and identities remain mysterious.  So keep your eyes open for seals as you walk along the water’s edge or on the beach. But let them be. Yes, let them be.

Encountering Seals in NY: What to Do

May 17, 2011

Gray seal pup on Flying Point Beach in Watermill, NY. Photo by Melissa Cooper.

Since my encounter earlier this spring with a lone gray seal pup on a Long Island beach, seals have been swimming through my thoughts.  Such encounters are on the increase in the New York area.  Over the past few years, seals have turned up all along NYC beaches and piers, including Coney Island and even Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal (that seal was rescued, rehabilitated and released into Long Island Sound by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, about which more below).

A couple of weeks ago, a gray seal came ashore on a tiny beach in northern Manhattan.  In 2008, a juvenile seal hauled out on a dock in the 79th Street boat basin on the upper west side.

NYC seal, 2008. Photo: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

Last year, a young harbor seal perched atop a Hudson River piling at around 64th Street.  Although New Yorkers may not realize it, the Hudson is tidal. This seal rode the high tide to its perch, and must have had to wait out the hours until the water again rose to meet it.

An unknown photographer sent this to the NY Post in March, 2010

Five species of seal may be spotted in the waters around New York and Long Island: Harp seals, Harbor seals, Gray seals, Hooded seals and, very rarely, Ringed seals.  Harbor seals, once abundant here and currently making a comeback, are the most common., followed by Grays.

Here is a lovely 2009 video from the Wildlife Conservation Society of an annual count of harbor seals in the area beneath the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York Harbor.  New York Aquarium Curator Paul Sieswerda attributes the increase in sightings to the clean-up of the Hudson. “The water has been so much improved,” he says, “that the fish are back, and the seals find plenty of food to live off of.”

If you are lucky enough to spot a seal hauled out on shore, please give the animal plenty of space. Seals come ashore to rest and warm up on sun-warmed sand or rocks.  The presence of humans (and their dogs) can stress and exhaust the animals, making them more vulnerable to disease and predation.  CRESLI, (Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, Inc) recommends keeping a distance of at least 50 yards.

When I saw this little seal with its head down, looking like a hunk of blubber, I worried it was ill or injured.

Shhh. Gray seal pup sleeping. Photo by Melissa Cooper.

In fact, it was simply resting.  This points up an important issue: If you’re not trained in seal behavior, don’t make assumptions and please don’t do anything to “help” the seal. Don’t splash water on it, don’t feed it, and don’t try to help it back into the water. Leave it alone. Most of the time, the animal is fine, and is simply doing what seals do.

Occasionally, an animal may be sick, injured or entangled in a fishing net.  If you have any doubts about the welfare of any marine mammal or sea turtle, please call the 24-hour NYS Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program (631-369-9829).

That’s what I did when I worried over the baby seal.  Even on a Sunday, the answering service took a description and the location, and relayed the information to a biologist at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

The Riverhead Foundation conducts marine research and, when necessary, rehabilitates sea creatures.  Many ill and injured seals have been successfully rehabilitated and released to the wild. This wonderful and moving video from Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre in British Columbia shows a young seal tentatively leaving its carrying case and then rushing joyfully (anthropomorphic or not, it is the only word) into the waves:

When you call the hotline, be patient. On the day of my seal encounter, I waited on the beach, hoping to be there when the rescuers arrived.  Some time later, I called back, slightly impatient, only to learn that the foundation’s single van must cover all of Long Island, from Brooklyn to Montauk.  There had been several sightings that day, and the van had gone to check out a seal on Coney Island.

Two days later, I called the Foundation and spoke with a very helpful biologist. She said they had received several calls about the Flying Point Beach juvenile, and that the descriptions indicated it was a normal, healthy young seal.  She told me that Gray seals are weaned at the age of two or three weeks and that this seal was probably around two months old and completely independent.

Whatever connection I feel with wildlife, I must acknowledge the limits of my imagination, particularly when it is shaped only by human emotions and experience without the expanding influence of scientific knowledge.  Now, with even a small amount of research under my belt, I may be able to more accurately interpret the behavior of  the next seal pup I encounter, and not assume it is lonely, abandoned and in need of care when it is, in all likelihood, doing just fine.

Check back later this week for a more mysterious reason to leave seals alone.  Just know, they may not be what you think they are.

Visit to Central Park’s Conservatory Garden

May 14, 2011

Green was the color of a recent bike ride across Central Park to Fifth Avenue.

Glory be to green

Our destination was the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street, the only large-scale formal garden in Central Park.  It features three distinct landscaped areas, each reflecting a different style of landscaping.

The center area is Italian. An expanse of green lawn stretches to a circular fountain

Sun and shade in the Italian garden

Stone staircases lead up to a magical wisteria-draped secluded area.

Shades of green

The Italian garden is flanked on either side by a gorgeous allee of crab apple trees; the branches intertwine to make a living roof that creates perfect sun-dappled shade in which to read or simply commune with nature.

One of the best reading spots in all New York

On Tuesday, just enough blossoms remained on the branches to create gentle pink-and-white snowfalls whenever the breeze stirred the trees. Robins, blue jays and a pair of bold cardinals fluttered back and forth, showing off their colors.

Natural beauties: male cardinal and androgynous robin

The female cardinal, although not as flamboyant, is equally stunning.

Female cardinal flutters a wing

To the south of the lawn is the French garden and to the north is the English,

filled with tulips


overhung with lilacs and their delicious scent


and centered by a Frances Hodgson Burnett-inspired fountain.

Cavorting figures

 As we left, the male cardinal watched over his little world from atop an old-fashioned lamppost.

The red and the black

Nest Cams: Eagles, Red-tails, Bluebirds and Loons

May 12, 2011

All over North America, it’s nesting season. And you can watch.

“Nest cams” offer intimate views into the family life of birds.  By this time in early May, eggs in many nests have already hatched and the nests are filled with little downy bodies with occasionally gaping mouths.  Over the coming weeks, you can watch parents feed and shelter their young, who will gradually grow feathers, test their wings and venture from the nest.  The links below take you to a sampler of available nest cams from around the continent: bald eagles in British Columbia , Red-tailed hawks in New York City, Eastern bluebirds in New York state, and loons in Minnesota.

Click on the bird name to go to the live feed, and please be patient while the video feed loads. Have fun.


This nest cam is maintained by Hancock Wildlife Foundation in British Columbia, Canada. The view of the eagles is absolutely extraordinary.


Photo by Erin Callihan, New York University; click photo for article

Today is a critical day for this pair of young red-tailed hawks that are nesting on a ledge of NYU’s Bobst Library, outside the office of the president of the university.  Only one of the pair’s three eggs has hatched; the other two eggs are still in the nest, but are not viable.

An attempted rescue is planned for midday today to aid the female, known as Violet,  who is suffering from a severely swollen foot, casued by a metal band cutting into her leg.  According to the New York Times, which maintains the nest cam, Bobby and Kathy Horvath, the city’s preeminent wildlife rehabilitators,  will attempt to take Violet from the nest and bring her into the office, where a veterinarian will try to remove the band and assess the hawk’s health.  If she needs rehabilitation, her single eyass (the term for a baby hawk) will probably also be taken from the nest and raised by hand.  It is apparently unlikely that the male, known as Bobby, would be able to rear the baby on his own.

As I watch right now, Violet has just returned to the nest with a dead squirrel. Breakfast. Mmmm.


Male eastern bluebird in Kansas; photo by kansasphoto/

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides links to many nest cams, including this one in Glenham, NY. Five nestlings hatched on April 30th and are now dark, downy mounds that periodically erupt into a frenzy of open-mouthed peeping, as they strain upward to compete for the mother bluebird’s feeding attentions, before subsiding into a sleepy mass of fluff.  For more about bluebirds, visit the North American Bluebird Foundation.


Parent loon feeding baby; pmarkham/

As of this writing, the loons are still incubating the eggs, which are expected to hatch in early June.  You may also want to follow Larry Backlund’s Loon Blog for fascinating updates and detailed loon observations. Mr. Backlund knows his loons, pointing out, for example, that the parent loons easily distinguish between bald eagles and osprey flying so high overhead as to appear as specks. The loons become agitated by eagles, which have been known to raid nests and eat nestlings, while ignoring the ospreys, which stick to fish and therefore pose no threat.

Spring in Three Cities

May 9, 2011

I spent a good chunk of April out of town, and am happy to be back on my island home, now in full  leaf-out.

Biblical Garden at Saint John the Divine.

Oh, yes, it’s spring, at last.

A peacock blossoms in a garden of Saint John the Divine.

Flowers are popping, and animals, too, are busting the confines of their lives.

In April. a baby pigeon rested in front of a flowering tree.

We’re all border crossers, every one of us animals, our lifetime of crossings prefigured by our natal departure from a watery womb world or hard-shelled egg into the dangerous but seemingly limitless possibilities of earth and air.  It’s never more evident than in springtime.

Baby birds are cracking out of eggs

Morningside Park gosling

Raccoons are emerging from dark holes and hollows

Riverside Park raccoon emerges from retaining wall den.

Turtles are leaving their watery homes to lounge on warm rocks

Morningside Park turtles relax in the sun.

and seals are coming ashore in New York City, including a small beach in northern Manhattan.

Gray seal on beach at Dyckman Street and the Hudson River. Photo by Corey Kilgannon/The New York Times.

(Read about my April encounter with a gray seal pup on Long Island here.)

In April, I worked in two midwestern cities, Indianapolis and St. Louis. Most of the time I spent in that strange, indoor world of theater rehearsals, a world that knows no seasons.  But in each city, I managed one small adventure and found wildlife surprises.

One morning, I played hooky from the Bonderman Symposium at Indiana Repertory Theater to explore the city’s amazing collection of war memorials. (Visit my other blog, The Red Animal Project, to read an ongoing series about how we remember our war dead, including a look at the Indianapolis War Memorial Plaza.)

A robin gazed over the city from atop the head of a majestic lion at the War Memorial Museum and Shrine.

Indy robin and lion.

 Trees clad in bridal gowns lingered along the paths of War Memorial Plaza

and a charmingly awkward American coot slowly revealed itself

Downtown coot

then strolled alone in an expanse of green.

No water here.

In St. Louis in the last days of April, I spied the first bird of the morning just steps from the hotel door.

Oh. So sad.

A gorgeous rose-breasted grosbeak.

Lovely, but dead.

The killer loomed above the tiny victim: a wall of glass.

Bird killer.

In the U.S. alone, collisions with man-made structures, particularly high-rise buildings, kill somewhere between 100 million and a billion birds a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Solutions to the problem range from decals to dimming lights on high-rises, particularly during fall and spring migrations. If you ever notice a dead bird on the sidewalk, look up. If the bird lies beneath a building, please take the time to contact the building manager about the problem. If you live in a big city, you can volunteer with your local Audubon chapter to monitor collision deaths and advocate for changes in building codes and policies, such as Project Safe Flight.

Other top human-caused killers of birds are poisons and cats. Yes, cats. Pet cats take an enormous toll on wildlife. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but it is clearly in the high hundreds of millions each year, if not well over a billion. Pet owners, please accept this inconvenient fact, and keep your cats indoors.

Indoor cat goes hunting.

Back in St. Louis, I headed toward the Mississippi River, and discovered the city is a hot bed of cardinals. The fact that the hotel is half a block from the baseball stadium might have something to do with the extraordinary number of sightings.

Welcome Cardinal Nation!

Cardinals perched

Two cardinals guard a baseball.

Cardinals dressed up in baseball caps

Cardinals swung bats

and cardinals kept score

The park by the river was a dazzling green, and filled with robins and brilliantly irridescent blackbirds.

Irridescence on parade

Sparrows on the steps to the river took a wildly active dust bath.

Rollin' in the dirt

And then, at last, there was the river

Bursting its banks, covering walkways and ramps, the Mississippi is spectacular, unpredictable and dangerous.

I loved working in other cities, and I love being home in New York, New York.

Trumpeter brings soundtrack to my block.

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