Sunday, January 31, 2010

Camila Moon

January is almost done. That's one twelfth of the year over already! Sadly, I feel like I'm still recuperating from the holidays. So perhaps it isn't surprising that I almost missed the first interesting astronomical happening of the new year: a giant, bright, full moon on Friday night.

This wasn't just any old big full moon either. This was the moon at perigee, that is, 50,000 km closer to the earth than any other full moon during the year. The reason is simple geometry: the moon doesn't describe a perfect circle around the earth. Instead, its path is that of an ellipse.

In short, that makes the moon appear 14% larger and almost 30% brighter at perigee than at its opposite extreme, apogee. And in case you might think that those technical terms rob this lunar phenomenon of its romance, Friday night's full moon is also called a "wolf moon". This term is supposedly derived from a Native American legend which said that the biggest full moon during this dark month would draw the local wolf packs out to cavort near villages and homesteads.

Life in Los Angeles is pretty well devoid of wolves, so I can't vouch for the
veracity of the legend. I can say that our home tends to revolve around one particular canine though, so I guess you could say that every full moon seen from here is a Camila Moon. Luckily, she's awfully tough to miss.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Meet the Hyacinth Macaw

Macaws are loud. They're messy. They're territorial. All these cliches are true, to some extent, for every macaw I've ever met... With one exception: Lady Macbeth.

Lady is a young hyacinth macaw. I've been told by folks with more experience with this species than I have that she is fairly typical for her kind. She enjoys hanging upside down by one toe, sneaking a bit of what every you're having for lunch, and generally making herself the center of attention.

She also has a beak that she could open a coconut with. In the wild tough palm nuts are a favorite of her species. In captivity that same beak can be used for breaking open metal cages or even taking off a keeper's thumb. Lucky for us she's friendly!

If Lady were in the wild she would be one of only about 6,500 free-flying hyacinths. Parrots in
general aren't doing very well these days. The pet trade is taking a horrible toll (ironic since most people regret their parrot pet soon after acquiring it), and so is deforestation and climate change. Hyacinths are particularly vulnerable due to their beautiful coloration and reputation (mostly deserved) as good parrot citizens. They are also the biggest macaw species in the world, sometimes measuring over three feet including their tail feathers!

What most people don't know is that hyacinths in the wild
often mate for life. Taking one out of its flock, away from its family, and shoving it into a human family instead can lead to disaster. Many parrots die long before they ever reach their intended new home. Those that survive often have a very difficult time adapting; unlike a dog or cat, these are wild animals that have not been breed to understand people.

Happily, Lady was not removed from the wild, but was born in Florida to captive parents. She is an excellent ambassador for her wild brethren. Everyone who meets her wants to know more about these amazing birds. If you do too, check out parrots international, a great organization dedicated to parrot conservation and understanding. If you're ever lucky enough to meet a hyacinth, take a moment to appreciate what an incredible animal it is. Just be sure to keep your thumbs out of its beak!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

This is Your Cat on Drugs

I sell a lot of cat toys in my etsy shop. Every single one of them contains cat nip. Does this mean that I'm a kitty drug peddler? Apparently the answer is yes.

Not every cat reacts the same way to cat nip. Only about 3 out of every 4 will go wild for the stuff. The reaction seems to have a heavy genetic component; American felines often love it while their Australian counterparts tend to ignore it.

Humans usually find the odor pleasant but not overly interesting, probably because we don't use our noses the same way that cats do. I always assumed that the reactive chemical in the nip, (called nepetalactone) somehow stimulated the cat's vomeronasal organ, a chemoreceptor that we lack. Recent studies show that this isn't the case. Instead the nepetalactone binds to receptors in their olfactory epithelium where it probably mimics a feline pheromone. The result is temporary euphoria and possibly mild hallucinations.

This reaction is short-lived, however, and after a few minutes the kitty usually gets tired of rolling around and acting crazy. They will then be immune to the siren song of the nip for about two hours, after which they may return to the same toy for another hit.

There is conflicting data on the reaction of big cats (lions, tigers, pumas, and such) to nip. Some tigers seem to love it, but most seem to be fairly indifferent. Then again, these guys are a lot bigger than our charming feline housemates, so maybe they just need really big toys to fully appreciate cat nip's recreational potential.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Story of One Shallot's Teeth: Update!

Poor Shallot Bunny, he's had quite an eventful month! I don't know about other rabbits, but I think that Shallot prefers his months to be boring.

As anticipated, we were able to get him an appointment a few days after Christmas to have his back teeth ground down a bit so that he could eat more comfortably. But while he was under anesthesia a problem was found. There was some sort of growth all along his gums and the inside of his cheek on his left side. The doctor called during his procedure and asked if it was okay to clean it out a bit and take a biopsy. Of course we said yes.

Then came the hard part: waiting for the results. Normally a biopsy takes a couple of days at most to come back. Not this time! Between the holiday backlog and New Year's, we had to wait more than a week. In the mean time we worried over what the doctor had said about the possibility that it was bunny cancer. She told us that the chances were 50/50 that it was aggressive, and that not much could be done if it was.

Shallot, of course, knew nothing of this. He went back to eating his normal diet much faster than anyone expected, took his antibiotics, pain meds, and anti-inflammatories like a champ, and generally acted like his happy self.

Then, during the first week of the new year, good news: it wasn't cancer, but a rare form of gum infection caused by his wacky teeth. And this week, more good news after his check up: his weight is up quite a bit, he seems to be eating much better, and the inflammation is almost gone! Hooray for Shallot, a true bunny trooper.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Mystery of the Monster Lemons

Just how monstrous can a lemon be? Would a lemon that was, oh, say the size of a baseball, be considered monstrous? Not in my book. I'm hard core when it comes to rating mutant citrus. That's why, when I went to a good friend's house for a pup play date yesterday, I wasn't expecting much from her so-called giant lemon tree.

She had recently moved and this was the first time that Camila Pup and I had been to visit her new digs. We had heard about the big back yard with its fig and citrus trees, but I wasn't at all prepared for actual monster lemons. Just look at the size of these things!

But what in the world are they really? They look and smell like lemons, but are the size of pineapples!

Turns out that they are called Ponderosa lemons, or five pound lemons. They were created by accident in 1886 when a lemon seedling hybridized with another citrus of unknown origin. That mystery citrus is thought to be a citron. Or it may have been some sort of other-worldly, alien freak. Or perhaps there was just the original lemon tree which was subsequently attacked by radioactive aphids. The resulting fruit was also marketed as American Wonder Lemons. That sounds like a third tier super heroine to me, so I think I'm going with the third theory.

Whatever their origin, the monster lemons do taste like normal lemons. Better in fact, since they are fresh.

So thank you, Carole, for your hospitality to my pup and I. And for the bag full of giant mutant lemons. I think I'm a convert now. I may never go back to the non-freakish lemon.

And for anyone who wondered, Camila had a great play date. And this was the result:

Monday, January 11, 2010

Meet the Common Marmoset

We had a bit of a New Year's surprise at work: the addition of a common marmoset to our zoo!

His story is somewhat mysterious. Apparently someone called Animal Control to report a strange little animal hanging around their back yard. After he was captured they called us, thinking he was a red-handed tamarin. We do have two of those, and plenty of room for another, so arrangements were made to transfer him to us since no other zoos or animal trainers had reported him missing. In all probability he had been someone's pet and either escaped or was set loose. Whoever he lived with was probably breaking the law by keeping him, so it isn't too great of a shock that they didn't advertise the fact that he was gone.

As soon as he arrived it was clear that he is not a tamarin, red-handed or otherwise! Fortunately though, we do have an empty spot for him. Hopefully in the future we can get him a partner since primates seldom enjoy living alone even if they are friendly enough (as this guy is) to accept a level of human companionship.

In the wild common marmosets make their living in a very unusual way: they chew through tree bark to get at the sap hidden within. They also eat soft fruits, insects, and whatever else they can find.

Their dentition, though, is specialized for the tree-chewing (that's what the guy at the left is doing). In some parts of South America they are common enough to occur in city parks; it must be quite amusing to look up and see a tiny cockatiel-sized monkey busily chewing a hole in the tree you're sitting under.

Of course, judging by our new charge, I now know that the same thing could happen in Los Angeles.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Way Down South in Dixie

I'm from the American south, so I guess it's not too surprising that I would have a certain amount of nostalgia for the region. I love the Florida swamps, the fried okra served in diners in the Carolinas, the crumbling elegance of New Orleans. Now that I live in a desert I find myself yearning not for heat but for humidity.

I don't spend much time thinking about it, but occasionally some uniquely southern item will catch my eye. When we stumbled upon the sheet music for Pick Me Up and Lay Me Down in Dear Old Dixieland we couldn't leave without it. The artwork is just so evocative of what I think of as The South.

That said, the south, and the phrase "Dixie", certainly have a dark side. I was taught the song I Wish I was in Dixie as a small child. It seemed perfectly innocent. It was only later that I learned that some people consider it offensive.

I always assumed that the term Dixie stemmed from the Mason-Dixon line, that is, the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania which for most intents divided the free states from the slave states. This may be true, but there is another possibility: it may refer to the ten dollar notes issued by private banks in Louisiana. These notes were stamped "dix", meaning "ten" in French, and were called "Dixies" by English speakers. Thus, the area around New Orleans especially, and the south in general, came to be known as "Dixie Land" during the 1800s.

A third possibility is a bit more sinister. Apparently there was a Mr. Dixy living on Manhattan Island who owned slaves until it was made illegal there in 1827. He was said to be kind, and so the term "Dixy's land" referred to a comfortable place in which to be a slave. I can't help but find this to be an incredibly tragic notion.

The song I Wish I was in Dixie is similarly shrouded in mystery. It was supposedly written by Daniel Emmet, a Northerner. But he may have heard it from the Snowden family, a group of African American musicians. The lyrics seem to actually have been penned by Evelyn Snowden in a letter to her father about how much she missed the south. All that is known for sure is that Emmet preformed the song with his blackface minstrel show in New York City in 1859. It became such a hit that the Confederate states used it as their unofficial anthem during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln even ordered it played by upon learning of the Confederate surrender.

Of course, I knew none of this when I sang the song as a girl. I just thought it was about being proud of the place you grew up. Now that I'm older I know that blind pride in one's heritage is not a virtue, and that to truly appreciate a place you need to look past your nostalgia.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

It's an Emergency! Let's Panic!

Sometimes, working at a private zoo can be odd. The fact that the zoo is private means that there is a large house on the grounds. And in that house live people. Some of those people have pets.

And where zoo keeping and pet wrangling meet, communication trouble is sure to follow...

Take today for instance. I was calmly cleaning the squirrel monkey enclosure when I received an urgent message. Come quick, it said. One of the dogs is in trouble! Hurry, she needs to get to the vet right away! So of course I dropped everything and ran, clomping over the marble entry in my steel-toed rubber boots. The emergency? The pup is very fluffy and she had failed to adequately clean herself after her last trip outdoors. That's right, she had a poopy butt. The problem was quickly resolved with some wet paper towels. Okay, I'll admit that I had to use a pair of scissors too, but what she definitely didn't need was a trip to the vet.

But it made me think: lots of folks really don't know what constitutes an animal emergency. So here, for the canine good, is a list of things that really do require a trip to the doctor (as enumerated on
  • Blue, white or very pale gums
  • Labored breathing
  • Collapse or loss of consciousness
  • Dizziness, imbalance, or circling
  • Inability to walk
  • Extremely bloated abdomen
  • Seizures
  • Signs of acute severe pain (such as crying out very loudly and excessively)
  • Body temperature over 104 or under 99 (normal is typically 100.5-102.5)
Of course there are many other reasons to consult a vet too, like vomiting that lasts for more than a day or two, lumps, wounds, snake bites, etc. Knowing your dog is key. If she is acting "off" it may be time to visit the doctor. But please, take it from an animal care professional. A dirty dog is not an emergency.

That said, my dog Camila would like me to add one more thing to the list. Apparently being forced to wear cute/comical headgear also constitutes a dog emergency. Treat it immediately with a dog cookie and a belly rub.

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