Monday, May 19, 2014

The Raccoon

When I was around three or four I met my first raccoon - an unexpected moment of intimacy (though I didn't think of it that way at the time) that has stayed with me. It was in a zoo. Back then, most of the local zoos (the Bronx Zoo was the exception) were city run and were the kind of dingy, gray landscapes that still haunt the dreams of many animal rights activists. In fact, my few memories of the Central Park and Prospect Park zoos are generally cast in gray and white - not the pretty kind from classic movies but rather the dreary kind from color photos showing rubble piles in war-torn cities.
Bears at the Prospect Park Zoo c. 1929. In my memories, the cages were even drearier. Photo from NYC Parks
Cougar at the Prospect Park c. 2013. The change isn't really the colors but the fact that animals are given proper care and attention, including enrichment like this pumpkin at Halloween. Photo from Have Sippy Will Travel

These memories are also devoid of animal life with a cast of three individuals. The first is a chimp displayed in a miserable little cage fronted in glass or Plexiglas. I don't remember the animal and maybe I never saw it, I just remember wondering at the barren cage and being told that there used to be a dancing chimp in it. The second is a gorilla who had vomited and had proceeded to eat the vomit (note that these zoos were later given to the Wildlife Conservation Society and are now pretty fantastic). The vomit is a brick red - a rare bit of color! - in my memory, which is unlikely unless it had been fed some sort of colored primate biscuit. The third is the raccoon. It is the only one I really ever think about much, but it has made a nice little nest in my brain and refuses to leave.

I remember it as a rather small creature with silvery gray fur, a white belly, and black on the mask and tail stripes. I remember the hands most of all; white & gray fur with deep black hairless fingers and palms, slightly glossed like new leather. The raccoon in my memory is standing behind the black chain-link fencing of the bare concrete cage, it's little fingers curled around the metal like a prisoner in a cartoon. Sometimes the chain-link is just vertical iron bars. Maybe it paces a bit too. I am standing behind a black bar also - a thick railing intended to hold people back from the cage itself. In my memory I am just tall enough to see over it instead of having to stoop below it, but it's just as likely that my dad did the same thing parents everywhere do, sitting me on the bar for a better view. I am bundled up in a coat and mittens (brown with some sort of pattern) and very happily eating one of those large pretzels available at hot dog carts all over the city.
I came across this guy in Prospect Park -
see how cute they can look?

I liked the raccoon. I may have thought it was cute or funny or mysterious or anything else. My knowledge of animals was fairly extensive, fueled by books my parents read to me, coloring books and TV shows (Wild America was a favorite), but still mostly limited to being able to identify different species and maybe even pair some up with odd facts like that cheetahs are the fastest animal and that lemmings commit suicide periodically (these were the "facts" as I knew them then anyway). Familiarity with the real thing was different. I was old enough to separate the real animals from their children's-book and cartoon counterparts but still too young and innocent to really understand what that meant. The result was a void waiting to be filled with my own observations and real life experiences. Zoos can be a great place for that.

Here was a real-life raccoon. It was not some smiling, dancing cartoon character or a picture on the TV. It was right there and I loved that. Even better, the raccoon knew I was there too. It was not asleep; it was not hanging out in the back of the exhibit or doing anything that told me that I was unimportant to it. It was hanging out with my dad and me, watching us with interest. I was hooked.

Photo obtained from National Wildlife Foundation
Then, quick and sudden, the raccoon reached out and took my and mitten pretzel from me. In that instant, my knowledge of the raccoon as a real live animal and individual gelled. Here was no Disney/Richard Scarry/Sesame Street character looking cute in the background or teaching me about manners, friendship or sharing; this was all the things those characters encourage you not to be! It was rude, it was selfish, it was a bully. It was also my first real encounter with nature. I cried. I'm not sure whether this was a reaction to the loss of my pretzel and mitten, to the unexpectedness of the "attack" or to the fact that my entire view of this cute raccoon (and the natural world in general) had been so suddenly and violently overturned, but either way it upset me.

The memory ends there. I have no recollection of how my father consoled me, or if I later told the story to my mom with tears or laughter. That is forever lost to time. How accurate my memories are is also a question. The more you remember an event, the less accurate it gets, and I remember this event quite often. It's not just my memory either. My mom and dad both remind me of it on occasion. It is a glue that binds us together with the early years of my childhood. For them it is a window to a time when I was innocent and carefree, perhaps also an early portent that I was to pursue a career working with animals. For me, the memory and the raccoon specifically, is a symbol of my first real interaction with a wild animal.

There are many sad things about the memory - the deplorable state of the zoo, the lack of color, the thievery - but they lost their bite long ago. I can hardly blame the raccoon for it's actions that day and in fact I now see that rather than simply taking my pretzel and mitten, it also imparted a gift - a lesson. It woke me up to complicated realities of nature - that a creature can be both cute and scary, that the black and white view of animals portrayed in children's books is no more correct that that of shows focusing on the violence of predators, that sometimes life just sucks - and to the fact that I am not entirely separate from it.

Raccoons can be both cute and scary (okay - this one's more cute than anything)

The raccoon and I reenact this event periodically. Each time I can feel the fingers grab at mine and the pretzel they hold. I can feel the light scratching of a claw or two as they accidentally hook onto the yarn of my mitten, and the sudden cold of my now empty, naked hand. I still remember the awe and then shock I felt as all of this happened. Like the Egyptian goods Seth and Ra who must fight each day as the sun crosses the sky, we are forever locked in this conflict, becoming (personal) archetypes - the raccoon represents not theft or trickery but nature, and my young self represents innocence and ignorance. I approach the raccoon with the joy of the innocent and the raccoon takes the pretzel and mitten, forcing me to face nature as it is, not as my ignorance would see it. Each time is like the first time for me - the memory is that strong - but before and afterwards, the heat of our conflict is long gone leaving in it's place the warm glow of that perpetual intimacy and lessons learned.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


This week: a book review.

As this blog is first and foremost a place for me to practice my nonfiction writing, and as much of my reading time is spent reading nonfiction, I thought I might occasionally post book reviews on here. All were originally posted on Goodreads

Last week I finished "Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution" by Richard Fortey. My review is below.

This book does shed light on trilobites - their biology, ecology, evolution and even behavior. For non-scientists, there is plenty of explanation of scientific methods etc. These get pretty repetitive, enough so that I suspect everyone will be skimming/skipping these sections by half way through. 

Personally I found that it was weighed down by the author's self-involvement. Fortey attempts to bring the book alive with lots and lots of personal anecdotes. It works okay in the beginning but gets old after a while. Part of the problem is that some of these additions add little to the topics he is illustrating. It is enough of an issue that I found myself pretty bored by the last through of the book. The bigger issue is his ego which comes through loud and clear. 

Fortey loves to talk about his own discoveries and accomplishments. That is warranted in many places but it happens so frequently that it left me wondering what other researchers have found. It's not that he doesn't mention the successes of others, but many of those are historical figures and the current ones are uncommon and frequently are colleagues of his. Cronyism is nothing new in such books, but combined with the giant number of personal contributions to the field and the overall paucity of others makes it stand out. 

His acknowledgement of dissenting opinions is even rarer. Most are only snidely hinted at. For instance, he mentions that one of the new species he named was contested by others but doesn't say anything else; his dismissal of them is so strong he doesn't bother to go into detail. It was a missed opportunity to discuss the process of identifying and naming new species or groups. He does eventually discuss that fascinating issue and gives some good examples of similar research and arguments making his lack of detail on that particular story all the more confusing. 

For the most part he avoids the vitriol characteristic of Richard Dawkins and some other popular science writers, even calling Dawkins to task for it at one point. One exception is his in depth discussion of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould is well done but odd in it's detail. I actually wondered if he had a particular problem with Gould, and I'm still not sure (he does mention Gould in a more positive light later but not in any really detail). BTW - I am aHUGE fan of Gould's writings, so I'm admittedly biased here but I saw no issue with Fortey's points, rather I was taken aback by how much attention Gould and his book got in that section.

Richard Fortey with one of his beloved research subjects. Photo obtained from Age of Wonder

The end result is a mix of the really interesting and the really tiresome. Sadly, these are common issues in popular science books. Brian Greene & George Schaller are great example of scientists (non-scientists writing about science generally never have such issues) that have been able to write great popular books on their fields. 

Richard Fortey is a world-renowned expert on trilobites and the depth of knowledge he displays is wonderful. This is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in trilobites or paleontology, just be prepared to skim through sections of it. 


The original review can be found here:

Other Goodreads reviews of the book can be here:

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Farewell to Shortwave

Shortwave, the junior member of our crayfish pair, died early last week. She was our third crayfish after Craymer and Cray Cray, all being rescued from a classroom where they were due to be frozen after their use was done. The lab techs were happy to see them go to a good home.

Shortwaves molted exoskeleton
She had molted her exoskeleton a couple of days before and had looked healthy while waiting for her new one to harden. Because crayfish have a hard, acellular exoskeleton, they cannot grow without first molting (shedding) it. When they emerge, they have a new exoskeleton in place but it remains soft for a few days, allowing them to grow a bit. It also leaves them vulnerable to threats that wouldn't be normally. Crayfish often keep hidden during this period but Shortwave was always brash, and paraded around like a man at a party trying to pass of a threadbare thrift shop tuxedo as and Armani.

Shortwave shortly after molting
Deaths during molt are a known problem with keeping crustaceans at home. I knew about it and feared it. As anyone with an aquarium knows, there are many things that can go wrong in a tank, injuring or killing the inhabitants. My initial introduction on crayfish care was a mad dash of self-education and preparations, and while I still have plenty to lear  I was properly neurotic about checking the pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels, cleaning the tank and changing the water regularly. All of these were concerns but the biggest stress for me was the hardness of the water.

I'm not 100% sure what killed her in the end, and my lack of experience in crayfish care doesn't help. I worry that I played a part in it though. The night before we found her body, I accidentally scared her, causing her to take refuge in her favorite place between a large rock and the glass. I had worked to make sure it was not such a tight fit that she would get stuck, but I never thought about what squeezing her now softshelled body into such a tight space might do to her. Later on we found her back in the middle of the tank, moving funny - walking awkwardly backwards. I was worried that something was wrong but I wasn't sure - she often did weird and worrying things. The next morning she was dead.

It was only yesterday that I removed her old exoskeleton from the tank. I'm not sure why I left it in for so long, but sentiment was part of it. I miss her, as I missed Craymer before her. These feelings could probably not be reciprocated (there are some anecdotal stories out there that suggest that more species than we realize are capable of forming social bonds with other species - but I'd be shocked if that were the case here) but that's unimportant.

My feelings for my crayfish may not make sense to others, but it should. Emotions are personal; and although other people can sympathize or empathize with us, they can not join us. At best they can feel the same way on their own with you. It makes no more sense be be attached to a crayfish than it does an autographed baseball by your favorite player, or for that matter to be angry at the cashier for the company's refusal to take your expired coupon. The emotions are still there and that's fine.

We tend to think of a pet as something that loves us back.It's a common sentiment but also a confused one. In the movie Meet the Parents, Robert de Niro states that the love of a cat is better than that of a dog, because "...cats make you work for their affection..." That's the exact same justification I've heard to explain why dogs are better pets than cats. Both arguments prize the reciprocal love of pets. Others deny any reciprocation of feeling, pointing to the fact that your dog or cat would eat you if stuck in your apartment for days with no food. While that is true, it does not disprove a pet's bond to you, but it is still a disturbing thought to many.

photo from

It shouldn't matter. Many new mothers are distressed to realize they do not love their baby immediately after birth. That love will develop soon enough and before it does the new moms will take excellent care of them. Why? Because the baby needs it and to some extent, so does the mother. Does the baby love the mother immediately after birth? I can't say for sure but I'm willing to bet against it. For those mothers who do feel that unconditional love for their infants immediately, it would not lessen if someone pointed out to them that their baby cannot reciprocate it yet. Love does not require reciprocation (friendships etc are another matter).

I freely admit that I did love Shortwave, as I did Craymer and as I do Cray-Cray who has survived both. I loved them for their interactions with me (Shortwave's efforts to threaten me every time I passed nearby and pinch me when cleaning their tanks and Craymer's caution and sometimes obliviousness to the same); for their often kooky behavior (the absurd acrobatics of Craymer in his never ending quest to get access to the filter at the surface, the blaze attitude of Shortwave to the threats of the much larger Cray Cray, their never ending quests to rearrange the gravel, find forgotten food and bask in the bubbly rushing waterfall of fresh water being poured into the tank) and for the joy and laughs I got from watching them do all of this.

Craymer died in November. I had not taken any pictures and have no mementos of him. Shortwave was moved in shortly thereafter and I made sure to take photos this time. Her abandoned exoskeleton, largely intact before her death, now sits on a paper towel where I put it out to dry. There is not much left of it. When I tried to pick it up it disintegrated into a cloud of chelipeds, swimmerets, maxilla, abodminal segments and more. I scrambled to catch as many as I could but although I retrieved many of the big sections, many of the smaller ones swirled away from my fingers, content to stay home for a little longer.

Shortwave, RIP
This will have to do for poor Craymer as well, since there is nothing left of him but memories.