Notes From the Zookeeper: Tiny Tortoise Videos and Also Playtime

Last week I showed you some pictures of newly hatched Northern Spider Tortoises. And I do believe I promised you a video. I am one to keep my promises, so here you go. You’re welcome!

It’s really not dancing, of course. It just looks that way. It’s trying to bury itself. Tortoise eggs are laid several inches underground, and when they hatch, they hang out and rest for a while before heading to the surface. They like to emerge when it’s dark. If they can see light, they are too exposed, so it is trying to dig itself a little hole. It works in dirt. Not so much in paper towels. Never fear. I tucked it in under a piece of wadded up paper towel, and all is well.

Here’s hatchling number 2 showing this instinctive behavior before it is removed from the vermiculite.

So now for the part about playtime. Pet animals engage in play behaviors that aren’t actually play. A cat turning a ball of yarn inside out, for example, is a tiny hunter honing its mad disembowelment skilz. You never know when you’re going to need those, you know. Zoo animals do that, too. It’s important for them to have an opportunity to engage in natural behaviors, otherwise they get bored, fat, or even stressed. The word we use for eliciting these behaviors is “enrichment.” Treats, toys, scents, new bedding or furniture, even something like leaving an exhibit without a top so that a Prairie Dog or Meerkat has to watch out for predators like they would in the wild are all considered enrichment. The more intelligent the animal, the more enrichment they require.

Imagine driving the kids to Grandma’s house six hours away with no video games, books, music, cell phones, snacks, talking, etc. *Shudder* Without something to do, it takes kids about 2.1 seconds to start inventing games we don’t want them to, like “smack-a-sister” or “let’s kick the back of the driver’s seat until they scream.” An animal in captivity that is bored will begin to do those types of things, too. It’s called stereotypy, and manifests in many different ways, from pacing to rocking, to paw sucking, and everything in between. It’s up to their caregivers to make sure that they have the mental stimulation that they need to thrive. In fact, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires that accredited zoos provide enrichment for their animals. Mammal keepers provide it up to several times a day. Only 50% of enrichment offered should be through novel foods (stuff they don’t eat on a regular basis) because there’s only so much an animal can and should eat.

As a reptile keeper, the needs of our charges are a little different. For the most part, their brains are not terribly complicated. Most snakes, for example, understand eat, poop, breed, repeat. We enrich them by changing out branches and plants periodically, offering new insects, or even sprinkling some spices around to encourage them to move and explore.

Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis) are kind of the geniuses of the reptile world. They have a greater ability to learn than most other species. Our young male figured out within a couple of months that if his exhibit light went out in the daytime, we were going to catch him for something. He would hiss before we ever got our key in the lock. Pretty smart, yes? So they require more enrichment than the average reptile. Khaleesi, our lovely female, has some great climbing structures, and her main keeper has done some training, which also keeps her brain engaged. When she is off-exhibit, we also have the petting zoo staff bring up sheep and goats to run around her exhibit. They poop, pee, shed, and generally make the exhibit more interesting for her. Since they have no experience with a large reptilian predator, the goats just think it’s all in good fun. Then they go home, and Khaleesi is placed back in her exhibit to run around and sniff things. She spends hours in activity after a visit from the goats.

This week, we offered her fun food – hard boiled eggs. They are slippery and easily lost in the leaf litter, but they smell delicious, so she uses her long, forked tongue to sniff them out. They have a Jacobson’s organ like a snake, so they essentially use their tongues to smell.

And I’ll leave you with my favorite shot from last week. Tiny Northern Spider Tortoise with yolk barely absorbed. It couldn’t quite walk yet because its plastron was so bubbled that it couldn’t get all four feet on the ground at the same time. Can I get a collective “Awwwww!”

Do tortoise have bellybutton

Welp…

What did you do for playtime this week? Did you chase an egg? Climb a tree? Read a good book?

We Marched, Now What? Introvert Activism #Resist

Fridays are now going to Introvert Activism day. Trust me, friends, if this socially awkward weirdo can work to make a change in this world, ANYONE can.

In case you missed it, I went to the Women’s March on Washington, DC on Saturday. I did it for the reasons I mentioned here, and for a thousand more. The march itself was incredible. So many beautiful women in one place, all with different concerns, but with a common goal – making our voices heard. It was a moving and humbling experience, and I’m not totally ready to write about it. But I can share some pictures.

what did the womens march accomplish

Resist

 

But here’s the thing. As wonderful and powerful and uplifting as the Women’s March was, if that’s all I’ve got in me, the whole event was just a stroll around the Mall. I have to get active politically. I have to get involved. And that’s what Friday’s are for. Call them Activism Friday or Accountability Friday, I don’t care. But I have to move forward and stay involved, so I’m going to share with you what I have done each week to make the world a better place, and I encourage you to tell me in the comments what you have done, as well. Let us inspire and encourage each other.

So what is there to do this week?

First off, be aware. Here’s a link to a Bloomberg infographic you may have already seen. It depicts the countries in the Middle East Trumpertantrum proposes to ban against those where he has business interests.

The Women’s March website has a list of 10 things to do in the next 100 days. That’s 1 thing every 10 days. We can handle that! One of those things is sending postcards to Congress. Who doesn’t love sending mail?!

You can sign this petition demanding that the Toddler-In-Chief release his tax returns.

You can donate to the Standing Rock Reservation where protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline are ongoing.  You can also sign a petition to stop the DAPL from happening.

Choose your issues. There are so many. One detractor said of the Women’s March that no one knew what they were marching for. Don’t confuse a myriad issues with a lack of common purpose. We were there to speak out for the issues we believe in, and the Dumpster Fire in Charge threatens ALL of them.

Concerned about birth control being removed from insurance coverage? Donate to Planned Parenthood. I am grateful to them because when I was a young married college student, birth control pills cost 10% of our income. Without PP’s sliding scale, we could never have been able to pay for reliable birth control.

Are disability rights your thing? Follow Keah Brown, Dominick Evans, Alice Wong, David M. Perry

Need a way around the fake news? Try Dan Rather’s News and Guts. Trumpertantrum brought Dan Rather out of retirement, folks. He’s on Facebook AND Twitter.

Low on funds? Protest doesn’t have to cost money. Call your senator and tell him or her to block Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Find the number for YOUR senator here. Calls are better than emails. Letters are great, too.

Tweet what you learn. Share links on Facebook. You may share this one if you like, but I’m not posting for clicks. I’m posting for change. Lift links from this post, take photos. I don’t mind. Educate others. We don’t have to do it ALL by ourselves. We can’t, actually. But we can educate others. Check your sources to make sure it isn’t fake news. There’s a plague of it out there now.

And take care of yourself. Take breaks. Trumpertantrum is throwing things at us faster than we can duck. Be kind to yourself and to others. We can make this world a better place. There is hope.

What did I do this week?

  • I joined my local Black Lives Matter group so I can get updates and hear about upcoming events. Instead of buying a t-shirt at the march.
  • I donated the money to Standing Rock legal defense fund.I had never used PayPal for anything other than Ebay, but it was surprisingly easy!
  • I signed the petitions I listed above.
  • I called my Senators. Both of them. One mailbox was full, but I left a nice message on the other to block Jeff Sessions, the man who was denied a federal judgeship for being too racist.
  • I talked with my boys about why Jeff Sessions is the wrong choice for us. Squish is 8, and it is so hard for him to comprehend that people are judged by skin color. Me, too, baby. Me, too.
  •  And I listened. There is a great deal of mistrust for white women because we are late to the game. Right now, it’s my job to just shut up, listen, learn new perspectives I didn’t even know existed.

Face Palm of the week: 42 percent of Trump supporters believe he should be able to have a private email server.

What did you do this week to make the world a better place? Do you have a favorite hashtag you follow? Link me up. I want to know!

 

 

 

Lost In Translation: Parenting Edition

Though I know it is hard to believe, the occasional miscommunication happens in my house.

 

What I say: Clean your room.

What they hear: Play with your Nerf blasters.

What I say:  Dinner is ready.

What they hear: I’m serving you PopTarts. If it’s not PopTarts, demand them. Loudly.

What I say: Until you room is clean, you may not play with the cat.

What they hear: Touch the cat. Touch all five cats. Touch the neighbor’s cats. TOUCH ALL THE CATS! Right now!

What I say: This room isn’t clean.

What they hear: Your socks and dirty underwear are invisible to the naked eye.

parenting fail

What I say: It’s time to make your lunch.

What they hear: Play with your Nerf blasters.

What I say: Quit playing with your Nerf blasters. You have things to do.

What they hear: Play more. Never stop playing! It is your JOB to play! FOREVER!

What I say: Done cleaning? I’m coming in to check and make sure.

What they hear: I have the vision of an earthworm. I will never notice that you have not done the first thing.

What I say: Let’s get your homework out of the way. It won’t take long.

What they hear: It will take you the rest of your life.

What I say: If you just focus on the work, you will have it done in 10 minutes.

What they hear: Please flop in the floor like a speared fish. It makes both of us feel good about ourselves.

 

What I say: I made your favorite meal for you, now eat it.

What they hear: I dropped it on the floor, and then I spit on it.

What I say: But you LIKE this food.

What they hear: Just kidding. You hate it.

What I say: That’s a small wound. You’re fine.

What they hear: You’re probably going to die. Run around in a circle screaming. It helps everyone involved.

What I say: Go wash your hands for dinner.

What they hear: Walk to the bathroom, count to four, then turn around and come back.

What I say: Please get dressed for school.

What they hear: Make sure you wear your Darth Vader cape. Without it, you might as well be naked.

What I say: When I was a kid…

What they hear: Blah, blah, blah, hard times, blah, blah, blah.

 

 

Notes From The Zookeeper: When Tiny Tortoises Hatch

Last week was a banner week for me. It’s the very beginning of tortoise hatching season, and I never know what I’ll find when I go into work. Last week was full of fun surprises. Like this:

Baby tortoise hatching

Northern Spider Tortoise, Pyxis arachnoides brygooi

Notice that this egg was laid in June. Incubating is a slooow process. I’m a little surprised that this guy is hatching already. When the eggs are laid, they go into an incubator for a month, then they go into a chiller for another month. Without a little “winter,” the eggs never develop. They have to go through a cold period (a frosty 65 degrees is winter for these little tortoises from Madagascar) and then warm up again before the egg “knows” conditions are going to be warm enough for hatching. Otherwise it’s all Game of Thrones, and the egg always expects that “Winter is coming.”

We write all kinds of information on the egg so we know who the parents are and which egg is which because they are in a tray with 10 or 11 other eggs. This time, I candled the eggs at two months, and out of 13 eggs, only three showed signs of development. I put the other 10 eggs back in the chiller for a recool. In fact, I was just coming in to recandle these eggs to see if they were still developing when I found one pipping. Click to enlarge.

And here’s the crazy part. These guys have belly buttons. They stay in the egg and absorb their yolk so it doesn’t get covered with dirt. Sometimes the yolk doesn’t go far.

I have a video to show you, but I was up too late last night to put all of this together. Next week. It’s pretty cute.

Why I March

I am not a political person. I never have been, though I was partner in crime (mostly postal) to my grandfather, who trained me to knock on doors and hand out fliers and to vote Democrat no matter what. He drove me from house to house and waited in the car while I gamely canvassed the neighborhoods, knocking on doors, my shy self hoping beyond hope that no one would answer and I wouldn’t have to speak to a neighbor, or worse, a stranger. A few times, when the driver’s seat was obscured by an obliging holly tree or overgrown shrub, I would stuff the flier in the mailbox, despite Granddaddy’s stern admonitions, and beat a hasty retreat, claiming the family wasn’t home and praying that no one saw me commit a felony.

Years passed, and so did my grandfather. I voted in almost every election, even midterms, in his honor. But sometimes I didn’t vote a straight Democratic ticket because I actually knew something about the issues. Sometimes, I determined, an Independent, or Granddaddy forbid, a Republican, would serve better. But I avoided politics whenever I could – at family gatherings, church. Occasionally, I would indulge in some online stuff, but I was always left without hope. Why, I reasoned, should I commit so much energy and outrage to something I have absolutely no control over. If I can’t control it at all, I avoid it.

Last week, I couldn’t stop crying. I have a chronic liver condition, and it had been triggered. I’m drinking close to a gallon of water a day now, so toxins get flushed by my kidneys when my liver has better things to do, and physically I have stayed healthy. But the psych symptoms are terrible. Anxiety, depression, and mood swings are often the result. So I blamed my liver for my tears and just drank a bit of extra water to compensate for the water lost through my leaking eyes.

When I suddenly burst into uncontrollable tears last Saturday morning, I finally had to admit that there was an actual reason for my tears. Its name is the GOP. I had watched for a couple of days as Congress began its process to dismantle the Affordable Care Act like a toddler with a hammer. And it was a partisan move. They did it gleefully because they could, to erase the legacy of the most decent President in recent memory. It was the glee that got me. Why are they so hell-bent on removing health care from millions of Americans? And what is going to happen to me? Rare, preexisting conditions for both myself and the Padawan. Can I afford to continue a job where I make a difference, or do I have to take something that pays better so we don’t go bankrupt?

I screamed and sobbed, and I told my husband “I have to DO something. I need to know that I am not alone, that there are other people out there who are not just as outraged, but are also willing to DO something about it.” I made an off-hand remark that I needed to “go to the women’s march or something.” And so it began.

why women march on Washington

Credit: Jessica Sabogal

I took steps. I announced my intention on social media for accountability because depression can turn me inside out and leave me immobilized. I checked on transportation. I cried all day at work, and I planned. If I could find a friendly driveway in Virginia, I could sleep in my car. An offer of a driveway appeared. And then a dear, dear friend said, “I want to go, too. Let’s go together.” And suddenly I WASN’T alone. And within 2 hours, a ride appeared. And a hotel. And then the hotel evaporated as the offer of a house was made. And people I have never met have stepped up to make me hats to wear. And suddenly, this trip that I had recklessly committed myself to became a reality, and an affordable one. $10 for the Metro ticket. And I’m going.

  • I march because I protest a President-elect who appoints people with a lot of money but best case, no relevant experience. Worst case, a conflict of interest.
  • I march because I object to a President who feels he is above any law and refuses to release any tax returns.
  • I march because I object to a President who admitted to assaulting women. And then when those women step forward and say “Yes, he did that,” he threatens to sue anyone who comes forward. Because he knows HE has the money to fight it and they don’t.
  • I march because I cannot live with a President who is so ungodly. I am a devout Christian, and I object to a man who calls himself Christian but breaks the 10 Commandments publicly. He believes it is just fine for him to lie. And then he lies about lying, even though there is clear evidence. He is either so lazy or stupid that he doesn’t delete his old tweets, or he doesn’t think it matters.
  • I march because I object to a President who takes so many financial risks that he has filed for bankruptcy four times. I am a fiscal conservative. A President is a steward of our country’s resources. He is already a bad one.
  • I march because I cannot abide a President who insists on spending public money to have Trump Tower as a second home for part of each week. Secret service, outfitting for security, etc? That’s on our dime, folks.
  • I march because I cannot tolerate a President who doesn’t understand the meaning of public service. This is a lark. He’s taking off for the weekend. Presidenting is a 9-5 job, I guess.
  • I march because I am angry that the American people elected a man who is cruel, who insults national heroes, who is racist, who is so full of hate. I do not respect him, and so I march.
  • I march because I have no respect for a President who despises those of other religions. America is a great country because of its diversity, not despite it.
  • I march because I am scared of a President who wants to control the media. Freedom of speech gets ground under his heel.
  • I march because our President-elect is endorsed by 20 white supremacy groups. Scared? I am.
  • I march because I need to have hope that if even I, who hates crowds so much that I get Christmas shopping done early so I don’t have to go to a mall in December, am stepping out of my comfort zone to THE Mall with hundreds of thousands of others, that maybe there are others who will be jolted out, as well. That maybe we CAN work together and bring about real and lasting change.

I will see you in DC. I’ll be the one in the hat.

Notes From The Zookeeper: The Pancake Predicament

One of the things I love about my job is the constant need to problem solve. It’s an unending puzzle.  How do I get a fat snake to breed? How do I help said fat snake reduce her girth so that she is healthier? How do I keep each animal’s brain and instincts engaged according to their needs? As a zookeeper, we have to think outside of the box all the time. But this week, a puzzle popped up that was totally INSIDE the box; the nesting box.

Pancake Tortoises (Malacochersus tornieri) are one of my favorite species. They are weird and funny, and they have unexpected super powers. I spray the tortoises daily to raise humidity, and this week after I sprayed them, I found this (please forgive the quality of photos, or lack thereof. I had to use the camera on my little phone):

how to breed pancake tortoise

Check it out! She is digging a nest for egg-laying! Note the dirt on her back. She kicks up quite a bit of it as she digs.

Tortoises are not domesticated animals. Although they have the ability to learn, they operate almost entirely on instinct. Pancake Tortoises, like most other tortoises, like to dig deep in order to lay their eggs. Like, really deep. When they nest, they dig, dig, dig with their hind feet, and if they hit a hard spot, say a rock or in this case, the bottom of their enclosure, they stop. Their tortoise instinct says that a shallow nesting spot is worst than NO nesting spot. They abandon the hole and move to higher ground. That’s what happened here. She dug, she dug, she quit.

Here’s the tough bit. I don’t know exactly what conditions she is looking for. Depth, of course, but she doesn’t know how deep the soil is until she starts digging. Other factors come into play. Some tortoises (and it can vary even within a species) will choose a warmer spot. Others will prefer a cooler one. Some want shelter, some want space. So what does she want? When I add soil to make it deeper, she might choose a shallow spot. When I add water so that it holds together, she choose a dry one.

This is where it gets fun. Remember that super power I mentioned? This species of tortoise can CLIMB! They live in kopjes, which are basically giant rock piles. To visit the neighbors or make a love connection, they may need to scale a few rocks. They especially like to climb…wait for it… when they are ready to nest. So if the soil is too deep, she can climb out of the house and go on walkabout. It’s for this reason that we keep a heavy cover on the enclosure.

My solution this time was to heap up a pile of wet soil that was wider than she is long so that she would have deep soil no matter which way she angled her body. She nested under the heat lamp last time, so that’s where I built Mount Pancake. Would it work? The next morning, here she was:

Look! She's basking! Reptiles are cold-blooded, so she may be warming up for the hard work ahead

Look! She’s basking! Reptiles are cold-blooded, so she may be warming up for the hard work ahead

A couple of hours later, I came back, and she was nowhere in sight. I found her under her hide box, but the mountain looked the same. Most tortoises and turtles cover their nests so completely that you would never know they had been there. Had she nested? I checked.

The egg was so fresh, it was still slimy. But it looks good! How do I know? The egg couldn’t have been more than 90 minutes old, and it had already started to band.

Banding is the first indicator of fertility. It’s a sign that the embryo and air pocket have begun to make their separation.

This egg was immediately popped in the chiller. Without cooling for a few weeks at 65 degrees, the egg embryo will never develop. Once placed in the incubator at 88 degrees, it will take about three months before it hatches.

Stay tuned next week when I share photos from my most recent hatching and maybe let you know if The Professor has made any inroads on wooing his lady.

She's on the left. The Professor is on the right. It sure looks like he's been friend-zoned.

She’s on the left. The Professor is on the right. It sure looks like he’s been friend-zoned.

Notes From the Zookeeper

I’ve decided to add a regular feature on this blog. My topics bounce around a lot from work to cats to kids and back again, and I’m okay with that. But I thought it would be fun to add a weekly feature and give you a peek behind the curtain. I will primarily stick to my department, but there may be times that I branch out. Because I’m a giver. I put way too much thought into whether to set this thing down on a Monday or a Friday. But Friday is technically one of my Mondays, and that just got confusing, so I went with the real Monday. Consider it a tiny pat on the head to ease you into the work week. Unless you’re like me and you’re already into the work thing by Monday. In that case, forget I said anything.

I have thoughts and ideas of what I want to show you, like how we work venomous animals, the key to breeding certain species, and anything new that has hatched. I invite you to share in the comments anything you’re curious about, too.

In my last post, I covered some of my goals for the new year. Most of those were personal . I have set some goals for myself at work, too.

Neon Day Gecko Hatchling

Neon Day Gecko – Phelsuma klemmeri. This new hatchling is under an inch long.

  • I’m hatching these things left and right. I want to set up at least one new colony by dividing up the current two. Okay, really I have three. These are Neon Day Geckos from Madagascar. As adults, they are only about three inches long. They were first described only about 25 years ago, and they are considered endangered because their range is confined to a pretty tiny part of Northwest Madagascar. They live in dense colonies. Most recommend only one male per enclosure and several females, but I have had success keeping two males with a single female.

There’s a level of parental care that is not typically found among lizards. The babies that are hatched and reared in the same enclosure as their parents seem to grow more quickly than the juveniles that I pull to raise on their own. And these animals are fascinating. They move at a frequency that is much faster than our eye can register. It’s akin to watching a reel-to-reel from the 1920s, all jumpy. And babies are tiny. If there’s an opening larger than a millimeter, you can pretty much kiss a hatchling goodbye!

My goal is to study them for another couple of generations and possibly report some of my findings in a journal somewhere. I also want to get more practice at determining males from females. Boys have femoral pores that look like tiny braille dots, but when I say tiny, I mean tiny. It’s hard to tell. I want to get good at it.

Breeding pyxis arachnoides

Northern Spider Tortoise, Pyxis arachnoides brygooi

  • My second goal is to breed more of these guys. Some years are good years. 2015 was a decent year. I hatched all three sub-species of Spider Tortoises in decent numbers – a total of 15. 2016 wasn’t great. Like, at all. I hatched 6 Northerns, and that was it.  The trouble is, the eggs that hatched in 2015 were actually laid in 2014. With a 9-month span between laying and hatching, it’s a little hard to pin down the problem. Were the eggs not incubated properly, or were they not fertile to begin with? So many moving parts.

I’m going to start, though, by building an outdoor pen for my pairs of Northern Spider Tortoises to see if natural sunlight can improve egg-laying. The other subspecies go outside already, but not these guys. I also separated boys and girls for winter dormancy. I turned the heat lamps off on Christmas eve, and they won’t go back on until March. In April, I’ll put the boys back in with their ladies. Sometimes absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

That orange streak in the middle is its belly button. In a few days, it will close up and disappear.

That orange streak in the middle is its belly button. In a few days, it will close up and disappear.

  • My third goal is to complete my venomous training. I’ve already got a copperhead in my section, and I am training on Helodermas (that’s Gila Monsters and Beaded Lizards). Soon I’ll have one of those to care for, as well. We take safety seriously, so training is slow and methodical. It’s a good thing.
  • Angolan python - my first successful snake breeding

    Angolan python – my first successful snake breeding

     

    I also want to breed Angolan Pythons again this year. I have paired my male and female, after setting temperatures down to a chilly 84 degrees. But after the first night, I have seen no evidence of breeding. I am afraid my good buddy, The Professor, has been relegated to the Friend Zone. Or the female is too fat to breed.

  • My last goal is to get some weight off of that female python. If she does lay eggs, she’ll go without eating until May, which will help. If she doesn’t lay eggs, she needs some exercise. Angolan Pythons are adapted to a really harsh environment and don’t need to eat all that often. Turns out, every two weeks is too often. So I’m going to set her up on an exercise plan, maybe build her a snake gym to crawl around on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would you like to know more about?

Goals For The New Year

I decided not to make resolutions this year, mostly because it’s too hard to spell. I made goals instead. It’s a tip I picked up from a co-worker. She is so wise!  A resolution can die a sad death within seconds of the clock striking midnight on January 1. A goal is a year-long kind of thing. I like the idea of something I can’t screw up the first day.  Win! I have all these grandiose grand schemes, and mama needs to get these bad boys off the ground.

In 2016 my goal is to:

  • Hatch more of these:
  • Take up a new creative hobby. I’m thinking of knitting or crochet. Anyone want to teach me?
  • Drink more water. 20 ounces when I first wake up.
  • Pee more. Also counts as a hobby, so double win!
  • Eat better quality food. No more eating chocolate that I found on the floor. Unless it has been there for under five seconds because there’s no sense in being wasteful.
  • Be more organized. No more storing shopping lists in the sock drawer.
  • Bring home fewer of these:

    resolutions, writing, new years, cats

    But… so cute…

  • And fewer of these:

    Hillary and Humperdink. My new Nelson's Milksnakes. They are tiny and perfect and so sassy!

    Hillary and Humperdink. My new Nelson’s Milk snakes. They are tiny and perfect and so sassy!

  • Quit referring to husband as “Grouchy kill-joy who doesn’t want me to have lots of cool pets or be happy”
  • Spend less money on frivolous things. Everyone knows that Funko figures are a necessity. I’ll cut out some of the extravagances like heat. My kids are so spoiled on warmth. We have five cats. They can use those as personal warming devices.

    Surprise birthday Funko figures! I live in a world where Newt Scamander and Picket exist!

    Surprise birthday Funko figures! I live in a world where Newt Scamander and Picket exist!

  • Eat less fast food. One  fewer Sonic burger is less.  I’m perfectly happy to cross one off on a technicality.
  • Read more. With all that water I’m drinking, I’ll be spending more time staring at the walls in public restrooms.
  • Write more. See above. Also counts as creative new hobby if I use a sharpie and sign my name to my work. I’ll be the Banksy of public toilets.
  • Make my mark on the world. Again, sharpie.
  • Take the boys on another vacation. And remember this time to apply the sunscreen at effective intervals.

    humor, writing, zoo

    They’re not sunburned. They’re doing an impersonation of flamingos. And look at that balance!

  • Learn a new skill. Maybe peeing standing up? Or finally learning to program the VCR.
  • Find constructive ways to deal with my anxiety. Hitting bricks with a frying pan sounds kind of awesome.
  • Take Christmas tree down before Easter. Eh, who am I kidding?

Did you make any goals or resolutions this year? Or break any? I’m not here to judge.

Missing That Last Oxer: A Review

horses, review, Learning to Fall, Anne Clermont

Beautiful cover, and you know how much I love to judge a book by its cover!

I don’t remember how I found Learning to Fall by Anne Clermont. BookBub, or Kobo Daily Deals?  Either way, it cost something like a buck. I’m a cheapskate, but I hold dear the principle that life is too short to read bad books, so I looked it up. It got some decent reviews on Amazon, so I decided to give it a go.

Learning to Fall is the story of Brynn, a 23-year-old vet student whose father dreams of her becoming a serious competitor in the world of show jumping. Following his tragic death, the truth about her father’s finances is revealed. The training barn he owned and loved is swimming in debt. Where do her loyalties lie – to her father’s memory or to her own dreams of becoming a veterinarian?

The good: The author has potential. A great deal of it. I didn’t have to force myself to finish the book, which doesn’t always happen even with Big Six (or is it Five now?) novels. The premise of the book is interesting, a peek into the world of show jumping is intriguing, and the protagonist is humanly flawed, and therefore believable. The novel held a touch of nostalgia for me and made me miss the days when the Girl-child had her own horse. The relationship between horse and rider was tender, and the author reveals an intimate knowledge of this world.

horse, review, book

Yeah. No saddle, no bridle. I think the kid could carry the horse just as easily.

The not-so-good: there is such a thing between knowing a world too well. There were few examples of the dreaded info-dump. Sometimes, though, I would have been a little lost if I hadn’t grown up watching show jumping on television. There are even a couple of things that I am still unclear on. “Rapping,” or hitting a horse in the leg with a pole to get them to jump higher is bad, but the author indicates the damage to the horse is psychological. I don’t know why except that she told me it’s bad. Why should a rider have been disqualified from a round for hitting the horse four times with a crop at a jump? I don’t know.  I would like to, though. I wanted to read the book because I am nosy and want to know all the secrets.

Clermont skips parts, too. Important parts. We rarely get a glimpse of Brynn’s first round at a show, just the jump-offs, so a real opportunity to build tension and naturally fill in backstory is missed. Is it easy to get to the jump-offs? It certainly seems so because Clermont doesn’t feel the need to show us how we got there.

The copy-editing needs some work. Make sure you’re using the right form of the verb, and make sure that verb agrees with the subject. Editing isn’t terrible in this book, but the biggest demarcation between indie and mainstream publishing comes down to editing and attention to detail.

The downright frustrating: the villains are poorly-developed. Their dialog is clumsy and predictable, and the last dramatic encounter left me rolling my eyes so hard that I may have sprained them. In the last 5% of the book, I actually set down my e-reader none too gently and said “Oh, come on!” Had I not been so close to the end, I may have quit right then and there.

The story is rather predictable, as well. Predictability isn’t always a deal-breaker because comfort reads are a favorite category of mine. But I knew how it would end, mostly. The stakes are high, and the author reminds us of those stakes when she remembers to do so, as if she forgets and thinks we have, too. But the reader knows what is on the line. She needs to trust her reader the way the rider trusts the horse. We’ve been over it a dozen times. We know.

The inclusion of yoga is flat-out weird and out of place, but with a little reworking, another draft, it could have felt natural. Take us there. Don’t just tell me that Brynn did yoga. If it’s important enough to mention, it’s important enough to fully develop.

What would make it better – another draft. Tweak those characters. Flesh them out. Make the dramatic scenes less cluttered and more concise. Less running and yelling. More show, less tell, which is the trickiest bit of this writing gig. Build the drama naturally instead of telling me there’s drama. Polish the editing, be ruthless with the dialog. No backstory info dumps on characters.

Overall, the book was okay. I give it three stars. I finished it, and I don’t feel like I totally wasted my dollar. I might even re-read parts of it again. It was a quick read, too, so flaws are more forgivable. But with another draft, it could easily become a favorite horsey story.

What books do you recommend from 2016? New books, old books, new-to-you books?

Unlocking Bellatrix: A Rescue Story

I have two disclaimers here. The first: I don’t recommend getting a pet at Christmas under most circumstances, especially a rescue pet who can carry some emotional baggage. It’s such a nutty time of year. A new pet needs time, peace, quiet to adapt to their new surroundings. I made the decision to bring Bellatrix home the day after Christmas because I was off of work for nine days, and my kids were leaving home for most of that time.

My second disclaimer: this post is sponsored through a partnership with Nakturnal. Wag.com has info and deals on the  best cat litter boxes for odor control on their website. Click on through. They also offer for sale tons of other goodies for cats (I’m getting the kitty girls a giant cat tree from them after Christmas -Shhh! Don’t tell!)  and other critters.

And let me catch you up! Two years ago in August, we adopted Pixel.She is strange and wonderful, and I can’t imagine life without her. Shortly after adopting her, I sent a note to the rescue group we got her from. thanking them for our furry little weirdo. I received a note back telling me that her sister was still available. Which led to this post.

So I brought Bellatrix home the day after Christmas. She was about eight months old and roughly the size of a cross town bus. She hid under the bed for a few hours once she was released from her carrier.

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Bellatrix was out of sorts the day she came home. New cats, new people, new smells and noises.

I knew that Bellatrix, formerly “Cocoa,” had been returned to the rescue program because she was the wrong fit. The family had gotten her “for the kids,” all of whom were under the age of 6. They brought her back to Happy Paws because she ran from the children and wouldn’t let them pick her up. I don’t necessarily think they were bad people, but animals aren’t toys. What I didn’t know was how long it would take to earn her trust.

Bellatrix and Pixel fell into step immediately, like they had never been separated. Pixel’s favorite thing was to wrap Bella’s head with her paws and give her a good ear washing. Bella was cool with it.

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Bella says this is the life. Pixel says “Don’t you ever wash your ears, cat?”

Bellatrix was also very happy lying beside me in bed, especially by my feet. She adored being petted, but make a sudden move, and she’d vanish into thin air. And we could forget about picking her up.  She simply couldn’t tolerate it.

But as sad and damaged as she was, there was still a little kitten hidden deep inside, just waiting to be let out, a playful little kitten full of mischief and silliness. Every now and again, I’d get a glimpse of that baby kitten when Bella dragged a bow out of the cat toy basket and batted it around the living room. She’d play with joyful abandon for a moment or two, and then she’d run off like she was afraid she was in trouble. And if she thought she had displeased us, she would hide.

My kids encouraged her to play, with shoe laces, with a feather cat toy, in boxes. And gradually, she let them join in her games, chasing yarn balls and playing with string. Over time, she started letting them pet her, too. But hugs and kisses were still too threatening. Try to give her a gentle squeeze, and she’d bolt.

I began sharing my breakfast with her, spooning a wee bit of milk onto the table. She climbed up in a chair to get it. While she drank, I would sneak in a few head scratches. Yeah, I fed my cat on the table. But my goal was to make her as entitled as a cat has a right to be.

Then one day I was sitting in the kitchen minding my own business when this happened:

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Look! She’s letting me HOLD HER! It only took 8 months to get to this point.

And from there, my Bella began to unfold. She still doesn’t let me pick her up, but she wants me to love her. It just has to be on her terms. She yells at me when she thinks my idle hands could be put to good use petting her. She hides under our bed at night now, but not because she is afraid. She hides so that the Padawan won’t find her when it’s time to put the cats downstairs in the family room for the night. She wants to spend the night in the big bed with her people.

She’s more playful than ever and rather a genius. At night there is no one to throw a toy for her, so she has problem-solved her own game. She found a Nerf ball from the Padawan’s Nerf Reactor blaster. She carries it to the top of the stairs and lets it go. It bounces down the stairs with a Jelly-Bella in hot pursuit. Then she runs up the stairs with it and lets it go again. For hours. On wooden stairs. In the middle of the night. But she’s playing! And happy! So happy that the kids want to get her an entire pack of Reactor balls for Christmas.What is loss of sleep compared to a rescue cat who is finally beginning to enjoy herself? She makes me smile.

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So many teeth marks in that ball! Does anyone know where I can get more of these things?

And is she entitled yet? You tell me.

Bellatrix is a wonder and a joy, the gift that keeps on giving. Tell me your favorite rescue pet story. I want to hear it!