Category Archives: Pets

Commands I have so far failed to train my dog to obey

  • double espresso for here
  • stop! in the name of love
  • get down with your bad self
  • smoke ’em if you got ’em
  • what’s the word?*
  • what do we want? when do we want it?
  • stay; just a little bit longer
  • check the oil
  • meet the new boss
  • don’t turn your back on me, baby

* acceptable response: “Johannesburg”



I have a new family member.

Her name is Heart, named partly because of a black Valentine’s-heart-shaped patch on her left side, and partly because of who she is.

When I first met her, in November, she couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact with me. A series of events I can only guess at had persuaded her that most people, men especially, could not be trusted. She came to live with me in December — a dogsitting-fostering arrangement, I insisted, not to be considered permanent — and it took her several days to stop flinching violently when I’d absently reach to stroke her head.

After a while, in which I spent a lot of time moving very slowly and deliberately, and treating her according to a very smart friend’s advice, we won each other over just a bit.

That advice:

after gaining her trust with walks and ignoring and humor and nothing ever being a big deal, then you expose her to absolutely freaking everything so the shy doesn’t wreck her quality of life.


Now, she’s devoted to me, and I am in my inevitably inferior, non-dog way, to her. Here’s Heart waking me up on my 55th birthday earlier this month:


We walk four miles a day on average, and she is slowly starting to learn that words mean things, and she is training me how to listen to her so that she can tell me what she wants, and she leaps onto the bed each morning and wakes me by punching me in the face repeatedly.

We made the decision this week to make our collegial relationship a permanent one. No one who knows me is the slightest bit surprised, excepting me.

Life is good.



Another walk tonight as the wind picked up, this one two hours before the moon. Walking in the desert in the dark with only the dim light of other people’s homes to guide me: a metaphor for something or other.

Three miles and change, almost all with sand ground into my heels. Arrived at the front door shaking with hunger, some of it for food.

At the house in the late afternoon after my trip down out of the Mojave to drop A. at the Los Angeles shuttle, I watched two absurdly gawky ladderbacked woodpeckers wrangle over the hummingbird feeder. They were teens with back haircuts and pointed elbows. One climbed the window frame and drummed on it for a few minutes, then drummed on the window pane to see how that worked.

What it did was summon the cat, and each regarded the other with frankly hostile interest.

In Palm Springs this afternoon I found myself idling in traffic in front of the vet where last I saw Thistle. All at once I couldn’t see the street in front of me, blurred with saltwater. I pulled over to let the moment pass.

Red-tailed hawks

700 miles driven in the last week, and only a half mile of that of interest other than my company in the truck: In the quarries near the Santa Ana River, red-tailed hawks fought over a perch on a comfortable dead tree.

It is hot in the desert these days, but the temperature slackens nicely at sunset. An improbable blanket of salmon clouds covered the eastern sky then. It is dissipated, and the stars shine.

The cat frightened us the last two days, especially so for Annette who had to rely on my text messages. The less said about his symptoms the better, except to say that he will be getting a haircut soon to bar further gastrointestinal complaints.

An interesting word, trichobezoar: Greek prefix modifies an Arabic root.

He will be fine, most likely, and I now have less money with which to get myself in trouble.

He reassures me at the vet

He reassures me at the vet


Concert night

Coyote hunting n the Marin Headlands. Creative Commons licensed photo by Franco Folini

Coyote hunting in the Marin Headlands. Creative Commons licensed photo by Franco Folini

We had a concert out in the back yard last night. Closest I’d heard them to the house since I moved in. Looks like someone other than the cat has noticed the presence of rabbit neighbors.

The cat was frankly curious at the singing, wearing his “my better instincts tell me to run for the closet but I’m trying to be brave” face.

Funny thing: looking at the photo above my eye is drawn to the amole, the weedy-looking agave family plant just behind the coyote. A constant companion in three decades of hiking in the Bay Area hills, and it never occurred to me just how much I miss it.


I haven’t written much about the fifth mammalian member of our household, Harley the guinea pig. And the way things are going, I suspect I don’t have a huge amount of time left to do so.

We’ve had guinea pigs around the house for almost a decade. The first one, Stripey, was supposed to be Becky’s classroom pet, living with us on weekends. About a week after she came home we realized she was pregnant. Not long after I cracked a beer and watched her give birth to four little squealing furballs.

Stripey and her litter were pretty messed up. Among other medical problems, they all had congenital dental malformations that interfered with eating. Little Sister, one of the sweetest animals I have ever known, died at the petsitters’ when Becky and Zeke and I were traveling cross-country. Stripey’d died shortly before that. We adopted out two of the other pigs, and kept the first-born, who was renamed by each successive class Becky had. His final name was Mr. Bear.

Mr. Bear lived for a few years, but never really reached normal weight for a guinea pig, and had other problems as well. He died at about age four.

A couple weeks before he died, a co-worker of Becky’s offered her a healthy baby guinea pig from her pet’s new litter. Becky was reluctant — we’d had heartbreak after heartbreak with Stripey’s litter — but brought him home on a trial basis. I got home, she handed the baby to me, and he snuggled right up against my collar bone and started cooing. I informed her she was not taking him back.

We sat out in the backyard in Richmond that evening, the little pig tucked under my chin, and as the sun went down a neighbor fired up his hog and rode away.  The new guy purred loudly when he heard the motorcycle engine. I looked at Becky. “His name’s Harley, I’m thinking.”

A week later, he took a chunk out of my right shoulder.

Harley loved Mr. Bear, and would spend hours cuddling with and grooming him. I think he made Mr. Bear’s last couple of weeks far more pleasant. When Mr. Bear died more or less in the arms of his favorite student from Becky’s class, Harley inherited the big cage. Within a couple months, he outweighed Mr. Bear by a factor of two. 

He was sweet and cuddly, having learned that people were not to be bitten. We found it difficult to persuade him not to piss on us, which served as a disincentive to long bouts of lap time, but he didn’t seem to mind, happily accepting whatever attention we had for him, coyly giggling and running under his box when we tried to pick him up.

And through it all, his appetite was nothing short of prodigious. We’d put him on the lawn and he’d mow it. Piles of weeds were processed in short order. We spent many dollars on carrots each week. It was thus alarming a couple years ago when we realized that a carrot had stayed in his cage for a few days without being so much as nibbled. Off to the vet he went. The news was bleak. His teeth were seriously screwed up, growing across his mouth so that he couldn’t chew without biting his tongue, pushing backward down through his jaw. His incisors weren’t meeting properly in front. The vets shook their heads. He hadn’t eaten for a few days, and guinea pigs must eat more or less constantly to keep things moving in their gastrointestinal tracts. Otherwise, they’re prone to life-threatening infections. The vets said they weren’t sure if Harley would make it. But they put him under, trimmed his teeth, and sent him home along with a carton of Critical Care (dehydrated vegetable paste) and a plastic syringe. Becky had some time off from work, and she spent much of that time sitting in a chair with a towel on her lap, shoving the syringe into Harley’s mouth.

We’d force-fed Mr. Bear for a few weeks, and it was an ordeal for him and us. We weren’t looking forward to doing it again. But Harley went for that syringe like a calf to an udder. He would eat his fill and then flop over on his side, laying on Becky’s lap the picture of contentment. Within a few weeks he’d regained all his weight and then some, and his teeth were functioning more or less normally. But we still brought him into the den and put him on our toweled laps. He’d roll over almost immediately and fall asleep, his happiness evident.

The tooth trimming became somewhat of a routine. I watched him eat, and as soon as he showed signs of trouble eating a carrot or somesuch, off he went to the vet. The vet told us about a fund available for medical treatments for classroom pets: Becky’s students wrote a stack of “grant proposals” mainly consisting of crayon drawings of guinea pigs on examining tables, with accompanying text along the lines of “Please let Harley live!”

And he did. All he needed was a little help. I have rarely seen as stong a will to live: all he asked was the ability to chew and he’d take care of the rest. Hand him food and his delight is palpable. He is the embodiment of joy in the food chain.

Last month I saw that a carrot had stayed uneaten for a day and a half. Becky took Harley to the vet while I was in the Mojave. The vet looked at his x-rays, and said that his jaw had eroded to the point of uselessness: there was no ball left to fit into the socket. She trimmed his teeth anyway, and asked us to keep a close eye on him: if, as she expected, he couldn’t eat after the pain wore off, a difficult decision would be necessary.

I called from the Mojave, and Becky said Harley seemed to be languishing. She wondered if she’d made the wrong decision, whether she’d put him through unnecessary pain if he was only going to die anyway.

I came home a day early, spent some time on the chair with the towel in my lap, feeding Harley Critical Care a bit at a time from the wrong end of a fork. He seemed glad to have me home. He started to perk up a little, even purring after an hour or so.

He’s eating again now. The vet figures that masses of scar tissue are holding his jaw in place, allowing him to chew for the time being. Carrots are once again disappearing from the floor of his cage within an hour or two. Chard leaves and handsful of hay vanish in minutes. I expect we won’t put him through another bout of dental work, but his exuberant appetite still echoes crunchily through our house, for now at least.

Cathartes aura

Three of them in a plum tree this morning, turkey vultures, shivering after a rainstorm and spreading their wings to dry out.

Mallards again, and surfing the rapids again. Becky and Zeke and I watched from the bridge. Another vulture circled down in from the hills, broad white chevrons on her underside wheeling against blue sky. The mallards, about a dozen of them, dabbled upended in the slow eddy. The males waded onto the bank, stuck bills into the muddy grass.

The creek was café con leche, and it flowed steady. The air was moist with past rain.

Earlier we had let the rabbit and guinea pig run loose in the backyard. They were glad for the sunshine, which lasted only a few minutes. A rainbow formed to the west against a backdrop of dark gray. With the first few drops, Harley shrieked to be brought inside. Thistle waited until he was wet, then streaked for the shelter of the coffee table.

But the rain stopped again and we went down to the creek with the dog. The female mallards’ loud cries echoed off the far trees, off the walls of the senior center. The males’ call was a low quacky murmuring, a grumbling to themselves. One after another, turkey vultures spread their wings in the pale breeze.

My mother’s pacemaker installation went well. She was resting happily if irritably when I called in the afternoon. A routine surgery, and yet what a marked relief not to have to freight those morning vultures with heavy familial import.

Demonic fluffy bunny

Thistle has gotten ornery, yet oddly cooperative at the same time. He used to run right inside after three or four circuits of the yard when we’d chase him in, now he resists. He made Becky chase him around for hours the night before last. She eventually left him outside and went off to her appointment; he braved the raccoons and chupacabras and such in the dark until I got home later that evening.

… to feel that the light is a rabbit-light

In which everything is meant for you

And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;

And east rushes west and west rushes down,

No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,

The whole of the wideness of night is for you,

A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.

— Wallace Stevens

He’s not been let outside since.

Contrariwise, he consents to handling much more readily once caught. It’s almost as if he secretly enjoys being held. He’ll relax, and relax, and sink into my arms… and then come to with a start and bite and scratch.

Fluffy Bunny!

This afternoon we climbed Eagle Peak, a ridge running north from the summit of Mount Diablo. I followed Becky up and up through head-high chamise and manzanita, past fragrant sage and crumbling rocks covered in lichen, up and up beneath oaks and pines shot through with mistletoe. We sweated and huffed and scrambled over steep rocky places with treacherous footing, traverses with just enough exposure to raise the hairs on the back of my acrophobic neck, though one would need to be somewhat persistent to actually plummet to one’s death from any particular point on the trail.

We reached the ridge crest and followed the trail south along it, a thousand-foot drop ten feet to either side. After an hour or two, we made the summit at 2,369 feet, about 1,800 more than we left at the truck.

We sat and drank, water and vantage point both. At our feet lay the head of Mitchell Canyon, 1,500 feet down. Beyond the Oakland Hills, The Bay, Mount Tamalpais, Japan. 

The sun arced lower; the shadow of our ridge crept upward in the valley to the east. A coyote, then two, then a half dozen started a chorus of lament. Becky turned to me. “They just got the election results.”

Out in the rain

Home with a cold today, I went out in the rain to shoo the rabbit back into the house. He was in the garden beds. The leaves were covered with glistening little droplets, reflecting gray sky.

In among the overgrown basil was a black and yellow Argiope.

It’s a relief of sorts. We had a few in the yard last year, but I hadn’t seen any so far this year. Turns out I just hadn’t been looking in the right place.


The kitten was abroad in the living room, and so was the rabbit. The rabbit was curious. It came nose to nose with the kitten. Something not dissimilar to a look of sudden recognition crossed Thistle’s face, and he dove under the coffee table.

Rabbits in distress will thump the ground hard with their back feet, and that’s what Thistle did. First time I’ve heard him do it. Rather loud.

The kitten wandered back into the living room several hours later, and that was enough. It was obvious to Thistle that the living room, and probably we as well, had betrayed him. Another half dozen thumps, and he ran for the office, wedged himself in a far corner under the recliner.

This from a rabbit who fearlessly chases a German Shepherd mix around the yard. The kitten is small and wobbly, not a little afraid of the rabbit, who could kick her across the street if he wanted to.

I coaxed Thistle out from under the chair, held him for a while, put him in his cage and petted him until he’d relaxed a little. Becky played violin to calm him. I walked down to the bay in the dark cool cricket night.

Another wild, nasty, hostile feral cat

We’ve caught another one. And as you can see, it’s really mean.

Our local feral cat person is maxed out on fostered kittens, mostly due to Becky’s work a month ago. So we’re open to offers of new homes. There are, apparently, five more in this litter.

This summer, we decided to ignore our strongly held beliefs about the evils of re-releasing altered ferals. I’ve long felt that people who re-release bear similar culpability to the people that released the cats in the first place. I’ve been known to call the practiice “Trap, Neuter and Abandon” (a line borrowed from PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk — if PETA, of all groups, advocates euthanizing ferals, then there have to be some pretty strong arguments in favor of it.)

But these cats lived on the property of a neighbor who was outraged that we’d dare trap the cats in the first place. We reluctantly decided to re-release two adults, seeing as 1) we needed to reassure our neighbor that we weren’t out to “steal” “her” cats, and 2) she’d at least feed them. Two re-released, and a dozen kittens in new homes: seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time.

We went to that neighbor’s memorial service two days ago, having sacrificed those two cats so that our neighbor could enjoy a few days of seeing them lurk her driveway. They bought those few days with a lifetime of hunger, cold, and fear — not to mention the price the neighborhood birds and reptiles are paying.

Never again. I’m so sorry. Never again.