Parakeet omelet ~

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Crown crane

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Snow leopard

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Dart poison frogs

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Tomato frog

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Waxy monkey frog

Every time I’ve driven past Salina, Kansas, on I-70, I’ve taken note of billboards for Rolling Hills Zoo. Today I finally checked it out. It was mid-afternoon and hot, so most of the animals were napping in their dens or in the grass—barely discernible lumps of fur. After walking for awhile I got too hot, so I boarded the zoo tram at the next tram stop. I was the only passenger the whole way, so at every stop I talked to the young driver. He might have been 18. He might have been 16. He said he’d volunteered at the zoo for the past three years and this was the first year he was allowed to drive the tram. At our first stop he got off and stood by the tram looking at the giraffes in their enclosure and said thoughtfully, “I think this is the best place in the world.”

It is a beautiful place: gently rolling hills (the name is true) with trees everywhere and enclosures that allow the animals privacy if they don’t want to see humans. I told the boy that I was especially interested to see the crown crane, my favorite of the crane species. He said that it used to live in the giraffe enclosure and that he enjoyed just watching the things it would do. “It has a definite personality,” he said. “I notice that more about birds than mammals, maybe because I keep birds.”

Specifically, he keeps parakeets. “In the beginning I was hoping to breed them,” he said, “but you can’t tell the sex of a parakeet until it’s about a year old and it turned out I had all females.” Since they were laying unfertilized eggs, he once managed to gather about a dozen and make an omelet. “It was pretty small,” he said. He made a shape with his hands about the size of a little saucer. “They tasted just the same as chicken eggs, but instead of yellow they were almost transparent on the inside.”

This was a first for me, to meet someone who’d eaten a parakeet omelet. That alone was worth the stop. I wish now that I’d asked his name. He said his favorite part of working at the zoo was educating people about conservation, and that he hoped to go into conservation as a career.

I left the tram at the Wildlife Museum that’s a part of the zoo. This place has spectacular dioramas, but I was most interested in a special exhibit of frogs and toads. A video was playing and I heard the words “Southern Illinois University researchers led by Karen Lips discovered that frogs in Central America were dying off from the chytrid fungus….” That’s not a verbatim quote, but it caught my attention. Years ago, as the editor of SIU’s research magazine, I had interviewed Karen and learned about the alarming disappearances of amphibian species around the world due to this fungus, coupled—scientists think—with environmental stressors that have made the species especially susceptible to it. Karen and her team had chanced to be in Costa Rica and Panama at the very time this die-off was happening, and documented the event.

The exhibit included a large lighted panel with photographs of frogs and a quote from a Paul Simon song that, coincidentally, I’d been singing along to in the car just the day before:

“There is a frog in South America
Whose venom is the cure
For all of the suffering
That mankind must endure.”

He was talking about the dart-poison frog, of course. The song, “Señorita With a Necklace of Tears,” is on the album “You’re the One.”

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On spirit animals ~

A few weeks ago I watched an Internet video of a sloth crossing a road with agonizing, preternatural slowness, and it suddenly hit me: The sloth is my spirit animal.

I conceived of it as a Steven-Wright–type joke:
“I found out that the sloth is my spirit animal, but I’ve been kinda slow telling people.”

This seemed hilarious to me, although only a couple of people on my Facebook page seemed to appreciate it. But the incident got me to thinking about the whole issue of spirit animals, which certainly seems to fall into the category of cultural appropriation by Caucasian New Agers of a Native American concept. But that’s a matter for anthropologists or activists.

What interests me is that only certain animals seem to be candidates for spirit animals. You never hear anyone claim the echidna as her spirit animal, for example. I can imagine the reaction these would get in a standup comedy routine:

“My spirit animal is a naked mole rat.”

“A platypus.”

“A turkey vulture.”

“A grub.”

No, it’s always a beautiful or strong or otherwise majestic mammal or bird. Eagles. Horses. Bears. Lions. Perhaps some inventive person somewhere has tabbed the Luna moth or the chameleon, but if so, I haven’t heard about it.

And after all, what would be wrong with an amphibian or reptile, an insect or crustacean? They have admirable qualities. Couldn’t your spirit animal be a jellyfish or a brittle sea star? How about a sea cucumber? The octopus is an extremely intelligent creature for an invertebrate; I’d be honored to have an octopus as my spirit animal.

It just isn’t done.

It subsequently occurred to me that, in my case at least, one spirit animal is not enough to cover the territory. I can’t deny that I have sloth-like tendencies. But on other occasions my spirit animal seems to be the little larva inside a Mexican jumping bean that makes the jumping bean jump (a purposeful thing: it’s trying to move the bean to a cooler place; but it looks erratic). Other times, my spirit animal seems to be a termite colony. I figure it can’t be a termite, singular, because a single termite can’t really do squat; the colony acts like one huge Borg-like organism. So when I’m working hard and my brain is brimming with activity, my spirit animal is the termite colony. I seldom have days any more when I feel pretty, but if I did, on that day my spirit animal would be a leafy sea dragon.

When you think about it, all sorts of possibilities seem plausible. This could be a new party game: What spirit animal fits a given celebrity? Donald Trump’s spirit animal is the crocodile, I think, and Mike Huckabee’s appears to be some type of pit viper. The Kardashians (and I still don’t really understand who they are, nor do I wish to) collectively seem to be a horde of mosquitoes, constantly whining away on the media.

So much potential unexplored! The concept of a spirit animal, I think, has a lot of life left in it.

Stinkbug nymph ~

When I let my dog out this afternoon before heading to an appointment, I noticed this small insect on the side of the house. It was no bigger than about 3/8″, but the striped pattern jumped out. I had a little Canon point-and-shoot in my purse, so I set it on macro and did my best. Tonight I looked through my field guide and decided the insect was some type of stinkbug. Then I went to Google, naturally, and found that it appears to be a green stinkbug nymph (essentially, a juvenile), judging by the third photo on this page. My (!) stinkbug’s stripes were yellow except for the top one, where you can see some green. The text indicates it’s the wrong time of year for this little guy to be growing up. If he doesn’t find a place to hibernate pronto, the cold wave is gonna get him. Or her. Confession: I have a bad habit of referring to most animals as male unless they’re obviously female. This anecdote seems to have two morals: 1. Bugs are beautiful, and 2. Sexism is insidious.

Green Stinkbug Nymph

Green Stinkbug Nymph

The closest I get to wildlife photography ~

Wolf Spider

Wolf Spider

I found this beauty outside my local Kohl’s store. It was dark, but I had parked under a light near one of those little shrubbery-covered islands with the curb around them. (What are those things called, anyway? Shrubbery islands, I guess.)

I wanted to photograph the spider because two friends of mine had, a few months ago, found such a spider in their house, had captured it and photographed it as well as they could through a Ziploc bag, and had posted the photos on their respective Facebook pages with a plea for information. (It was revealing of their personalities that one of my friends wrote “THIS IS THE BIGGEST FUCKING SPIDER I HAVE EVER SEEN” on her Facebook page while the other one simply but eloquently wrote “This thing. What???”) I was pretty sure theirs was a wolf spider, and I knew this one was.*

For once, I had my camera bag in the car. The wolf spider was near my car door, so I wanted to proceed cautiously. Wolf spiders can move pretty damn fast. They can’t jump, but something in the limbic area of my brain persists in believing that they can. Besides, darting doesn’t differ much from jumping, if a large spider is darting in your general direction. To assess the situation, I tapped my foot on the curb a safe distance away. The spider stayed put. I then made an awkward kicking motion (which I hope no one saw) toward the spider, and it still stayed put. So I edged the quarter near it for scale.

Since the spider remained motionless—either dying or depressed, I figured—I got braver with my shots. Finally I put the camera on super macro mode, which required putting the lens scarily close to the spider. But I was emboldened by its apparent indifference. I recently bought a little Fuji X10, a very capable retro-looking point-and-shoot with a bright lens and lots of controls, and that’s what I used here. The image needed a little lightening and a little sharpening, and I cropped it.

It’s fortunate for me that I prefer abstracts and semi-abstracts for my “serious” photography work. Several of my friends excel at wildlife photography, and I admire their work greatly. I don’t have the patience to do it myself, however. I hate using tripods, and my weak hands don’t like dealing with the weight of long lenses either. But those are mostly excuses; I simply lack the talent for photographing wildlife, just as I lack the talent for leading a wild life. This is as close as I get on both counts, and it’s good enough for me.

* Wrong again! I have now seen a much better picture of my friends’ arachnid, and it was in fact an orb weaver. They have assured me that it was much bigger and much scarier than my wolf spider. B. swears it was as big as her face. This seems hard to credit, but okay. It’s also possible that one’s perception of spider size is at least slightly influenced by whether said spider is outside where it belongs or inside one’s house.