Thursday, February 26, 2009

The cutest of critters

Taronga Zoo in Sydney now boasts two extremely cute baby meerkats – Zanzibar and Nairobi, (the two tiny ones just above) born in January, bringing the zoo’s meerkat family to a total of nine. I have always been fascinated by these little creatures, with their quirkily alert little faces and upright almost human stance. They are said to be quite precocious, intelligent and social animals. Interestingly the females tend to be larger and more dominant than their male counterparts who have somewhat more relaxed laid back personalities.

Fellow Earthlings Wildlife Centre, situated in the desert of California, is a unique facility that specializes in caring for meerkats that may be orphaned, injured, old, sick or unable to be housed. Such animals are usually sent to the Centre by other zoological establishments. The meerkats sent there are given homes for the rest of their lives. Visitors can visit them at certain times of the year, interact with, hand feed and even sponsor them. One of the Centre’s meerkats was in fact the inspiration for the endearing Disney character Timon in the movie “The Lion King”

According to the Fellow Earthlings Wildlife Centre, the Meerkat Motto, (which we humans could do very well to adopt also) is:

Respect the Elders
Teach the Young
Cooperate with the Family
Play when you can
Work when you should
Rest in between
Share your Affection
Voice your feelings
Leave your mark

There are some delightful pictures and fascinating information on their website, including this gem describing how they feel about their little charges:

“They remind us how important it is to enjoy the simple pleasures ~ the warmth of the morning sun on your face, the afternoon breeze that whispers in your ear, the lovely pink sunset that wraps the world in a magical light. Each afternoon, we pause from our chores and join the meerkats in their ritual of bidding adieu to the sun as it settles behind the mountains. In the stillness, after the light slips away, we are grateful for the beauty that surrounds us and the wondrous little creatures that grace our lives and teach us about what really matters.

These sentiments could just as well describe how most animal lovers feel about the animals in their care, I suspect (as I wrote about in my last post).

Friday, February 20, 2009

Caring for our Furry Loved Ones

As I've mentioned before, but it bears repeating, my little dogs are a constant source of delight, comfort and love and my life would be pretty desolate without them. Their uncomplicated sweet natured selves provide a solace amidst the maelstrom of a world lurching from one senseless disaster to the next. They are a breath of calm at the centre of my often pointlessly frantic existence. Unlike most other relationships, they are undemanding, non-judgmental, constant and happy just to be.

Of course, not only do our pets fill important emotional needs for many of us, they are very useful little critters in other ways as well. Medical research has found that in addition to the well known benefits of pets as helpers for the handicapped, they possess other therapeutic qualities including the ability to lower blood pressure, decrease depression and something that will become increasingly significant in our society - ease the social pain of ageing. This is certainly not news to this ageing dog lover!

It really is incumbent upon us then to provide the best care for our pets we possibly can. Part of that is ensuring to the best of our ability their continuing good health and freedom from pain and suffering.

In a recent RSPCA newsletter, to which I subscribe, was an article alerting pet owners to various things that are poisonous to pets, particularly cats and dogs. Some of these I knew about but some I didn't, so it was very valuable information, which I'm sure my fellow pet devotees would love to know about too. So, here they are.

  1. Grapes and raisins – grapes can cause kidney failure. Raisins are even more dangerous as they contain concentrated toxins.
  2. Bread dough – dough can expand quickly in the animal’s stomach resulting in severe abdominal pain and bloating – even death if enough is eaten.
  3. Chewing gum – the artificial sweetener in many types of gum and breath mints can be deadly to pets.
  4. Macadamia nuts – macadamia nut toxicity can cause tremors, weakness, unsteadiness, depression, a rapid heart rate and a dangerous rise in body temperature.
  5. Nicotine – nicotine in cigarettes if ingested is highly toxic and can cause seizures, coma and death
  6. Chocolate – caffeine-like stimulants in chocolate can cause severe symptoms, in dogs, even death
  7. Alcohol – pets are much more sensitive to alcohol than people and alcohol ingestion can quickly result in a life threatening situation
  8. Pain Relievers – never give pets drugs intended for human use – not even aspirin. One tablet of paracetamol can kill a cat.
  9. Tea – caffeine in tea is toxic to both cats and dogs
  10. Onions – onions can cause hemolytic anemia in dogs and cats are highly sensitive to onion toxicity. This applies also to meat or stir fry or anything cooked with onions, as well as onions themselves.

Scully once had a very lucky escape when, following a major dental operation, she was having an obviously painful and uncomfortable night. Nothing I did seemed to ease her distress and eventually in desperation I gave her half a "human" painkiller, not realising how dangerous they can be for dogs. It was only when I was talking about the incident the next day to a friend, I learned that my attempted kindness could have backfired. Fortunately Scully didn't suffer any ill effects from my clumsy ministrations, but I can scarcely imagine how terrible I would have felt if she had. Of course, now I am better prepared and make sure I have veterinarian prescribed medications on hand following any trauma. Especially so, knowing from personal experience how completely horrible I feel for a while after any surgery! And I'm a lot bigger than they are!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

On Writing

Following on from a recent post and wondering how one attempts to give some authenticity to my boldly stated ambition to be a "writer", I have been considering for a while how the link between reading and writing can be put to practical use. Aside from the obvious interdependence between the two functions, it seems reasonable to assume that reading could significantly enhance one’s ability to write well. And here I don't mean books in the "how to" or "idiot's guide" genre no matter how useful they may be to a novice in any field, but rather books which are so brilliantly written that the reading of them ignites the flicker of creativity in the reader. I’m sure I’m not the first aspiring writer to fondly hope that if I imbibe sufficient of the creative fruits of others’ labours, somehow by a sort of strange osmosis, my own ability will be proportionately enhanced. Although sadly it’s not quite that simple, there is in fact a school of thought that claims the ability to write well is not a skill which is amenable to didactic transfer, but is rather instinctively and subconsciously absorbed from the constant reading of good books.

Perhaps this is true, at least to the extent that one gains the ability to quickly distinguish the dross from the real thing. As well, the more one reads, the more active a participant one becomes in the process, so that not only does one act as passive recipient of whatever the author has put before us but at the same time actively participates in assessing the technique with which the end product was created, in other words as someone I can’t remember once said “be everywhere present”.

In another sense, this is of course precisely the great joy and reward of reading, that you are enabled, despite the confines of your physical restraints, to be “everywhere present”. The ability of a good writer to take the reader on a journey out of his own world into another which he or she can perceive as real, just for the moment, is a pretty unique gift. When it works well we are happily taken along for the ride almost without realizing. If we reach the end of a book and the parting from that world and those characters who peopled it seems like a wrench as we put it away, we can say the writer did well. Strangely when it doesn’t work well, it’s often hard to determine just why, except that we know we aren’t getting taken anywhere and all that well meant effort, rather like a dud lover, is just not getting us to lift-off.

What makes the difference between the two is what the aspiring writer must learn. Tempted as I am to think it’s some sort of alchemy or the luck of being either brushed by genius or not, evidence exists to the contrary. No better evidence could be found really than first-hand advice from one who knows and that is there for the taking in Stephen King’s “On Writing”, a fascinating part memoir, part “how to” by one who is (whether you’re a science fiction aficionado or not) indisputably a master craftsman. His essential advice is quickly summed up in one paragraph … “if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” So I think that answers my question really. Back to the page – both printed and blank!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Scenes from the inferno

It is only now, two days after the event, that estimates of damages, lives and properties lost in what has been officially called the worst fires in Australia's history can be made with any precision. Although, as firefighters are still searching for bodies in the burn out remains of homes and vehicles, the death count, already estimated at up to 100, is likely to escalate. The sheer horror of this experience is impossible to truly comprehend. The photographs and news reports are graphic and the interviews with those affected are heart wrenching. Watching one such interview on television last night which showed a woman in tears at the loss of everything in life she owned, except the clothes she was dressed in, I felt overwhelmed by the enormity that dealing with such a loss would represent. Many people (both those personally involved and us fortunate ones who have been spared), in understandably trying to make this loss easier to bear for those who are suffering, comment on the fact that at least they were lucky to come out alive. And indeed this is true - they have been spared the agony of what must be one of the worst possible ways to die. This however in my opinion does not mean we should sympathise with them less because the loss of material things is in some way more trivial. The woman interviewed last night had lived in her home for 35 years. I have only lived in my present home for 7, but that home, as I'm sure was the case for all of those now homeless people in Victoria, represents my life in many ways. It is filled with treasured mementos, photographs, books, music, art and things passed down to me by parents, grandparents and other loved ones, plus the various goods and chattels purchased with income earned in many long and often trying years of work. Some of these things could be replaced by simply going out and buying more stuff. Many of them though are priceless, impossible to replace and the sudden wrenching of them from my existence would leave me truly impoverished. And that doesn't even take into account the house itself, which in my case is certainly no palace but still my own cherished and private domain, lovingly bought and decorated and maintained over just these few short years. These are of course just things, and not to be compared to the priceless nature of human life, but they are precious nonetheless.

Sadly, the inferno has destroyed not just human life but the lives of animals, birds, reptiles, fish - both wild and domestic - any living thing in fact which happened to be in the path of the fire's ferocious assault. Those creatures that have survived in the burnt out areas are largely homeless now too and as their food source has gone, many more of them will die in coming days and weeks. My heart breaks for those people too who had to flee their homes and weren't able to save their loved pets. One can only guess at the terror that must have gripped those helpless little creatures before death took them.

While we try and come to terms with the devastation wrought by this latest very Australian natural disaster and many of us are actively involved in doing what we can to help the survivors, perhaps the worst aspect of it is knowing that in some cases, this was not a natural disaster. Although definitive proof has yet to be confirmed, it is believed some of the fires were the work of arsonists. If the people who deliberately wreak such havoc on the world around them, for no reason other than their own entertainment or twisted sense of gratification, had to experience the level of pain they have inflicted on others, besides representing at least a little justice, it might just possibly make them think twice next time they are thinking about unleashing an inferno. I'm not usually an advocate of a primitive "eye for an eye" solution to crime, as often it's just not that simple, but in this case I'm afraid I could be converted.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I hate Valentine's Day

Yes I know it's a week or so away, but I just saw an article about how to look your best for Valentine's Day and it reminded me of this impending assault on our fragile sense of emotional equilibrium (or mine anyway) not to mention our wallets if we happen to have a partner who needs a reminder of our devotion to them.

Now this cynical attitude could be construed as a case of sour grapes on my part, because I currently have no potential flower, chocolate or red heart donor, nor for that matter any potential donees deserving of a few bucks spent on them, and sadly have been in this non-starter state for the last few years when the great day has dawned. But I hasten to reassure you it’s not that – well not entirely anyway and I do try to tone down the bitchy looks at those more favoured colleagues at the office tripping off to collect their floral tributes, having been ostentatiously summoned by the receptionist who can never resist an arch comment or two on such occasions. It’s a bit like Mother’s Day if you’ve got no kids, or no living mother I suppose or Father’s Day or any other “day” where you’re clearly a non-contender for whatever reason – even the most together of us can’t help but feel a bit left out. And for those of us who are decidedly shaky anyway, this stuff could be just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

There is something decidedly contrived about the symbols of affection precipitated by the blatant commercial campaigns that all such “days” have become and although I would never want to discourage any ardent swain from lavishing their paramour with offerings of flowers, perfume, jewellery, chocolates or whatever else they think might take their fancy (except perhaps not those grotesque shiny heart bubble thingos which are frankly gross and belong in a used car yard), the simple spontaneity of a thoughtful caring gesture or act, unprecipitated by any special occasion is possibly more to be valued.

The other thing about the dreaded “V” day is that if you happen to be lucky enough to have a special someone, depending on the longevity, stability or requited nature of the relationship, it can be very tricky indeed navigating your way through the potential pitfalls this occasion can present. If you have been blissfully together for a while and no clouds are currently marring the vista of your togetherness then of course you don’t have a problem – sit back and either accept all offerings gracefully or give generously, or both, or just ignore the whole ridiculous shebang and enjoy each other. No, what I’m talking about is those often more frequent situations where you haven’t been together long, you’re not sure how you feel, or how he/she feels, or things are just a tad rocky for whatever reason. Then you are faced with the dilemma – do I boldly front up with a pressie, or maybe more guardedly just a card, or take the coward’s way out and send an anonymous missive (which of course is in fact being more true to the tradition in any case) – or do I furtively get a “just in case” little something and hold it in reserve until something materializes from the one in question? This situation must of course be handled very delicately as one must make sure the little something is fairly closely to hand in the event you luck out in the recipient stakes so you can just whisk it out as though you almost but not quite beat them to it! If you are caught on the hop and have to say, well of course I have something special for you darling, but stupid me, I left it home/in the car/at the office – well anywhere but at the shop clearly, unless you are a complete Valentine’s dunderhead and in fact it is at the shop as yet completely unconsidered and unpurchased. Here some very quick thinking is in order. Usually I may add it is the male of the species who finds himself in this tight spot – silly buggers that they are.

I have had many such dilemmas over the years ranging from being delightfully surprised with bounteous and gorgeous flowers from someone I hankered after but thought I had little chance with, to being sent a huge, ostentatious and garish arrangement more suited to a funeral parlour by someone I loathed – which went immediately into the bin. The satisfaction this gave me was quickly annulled when the idiot in question promptly phoned to ask if I got his flowers and really put me on the spot. Another time in the very fledgling phase of a relationship I got completely carried away by a store display or listening to too many romantic songs, or being drunk or something and drove all the way across town to buy a very expensive and hard to get book, the title of which I can’t remember now except that the word “love” figured prominently in it. This of course was coupled with a full-on “to my sweetheart” Hallmark extravaganza of a card in which I blush to remember the fond sentiments I inscribed. Great thought but about two thousand degrees to the right of moderation, given the developmental stage of that relationship as was evidenced by the awkwardness of the recipient on having this lavished upon him. He gave me a card – in which the word “love” was nowhere to be seen.

So in retrospect this Valentine’s Day perhaps rather than feeling miffed at being on the outer, I shall feel relieved not to have to deal with any of it at all and just carry on as though absolutely nothing was different. (Which won’t be too hard actually as this year it falls on a Saturday so I won’t be confronted by other people getting stuff I have no wish to see).