Friday, February 26, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I wish by golly I could spread my wings and fly
And let my grounded soul be free for just a little while
To be like eagles when they ride upon the wind
And taste the sweetest taste of freedom for my soul

To let my feelings lie where harm can not come by
And hurt this always hurtin' heart
That needs to rest awhile
I wish by golly I could spread my wings and fly
And taste the sweetest taste of freedom for my soul

Then I'd be free at last, free at last
Great God Almighty I'd be free at last
I'd be free at last, free at last
Great God Almighty I'd be free at last


The recent tragic incident involving the death of a SeaWorld trainer at the flippers of a captive killer whale has inspired a flurry of debates about the ethics and practicality of confining dangerous wild animals. There are no easy answers, of course. On the one hand, the animal is probably happier and healthier out in its natural environment—and people are safer. On the other, perhaps science can benefit from studying these creatures, and we can preserve and protect threatened species, and we can find ways to mentally stimulate and entertain them so that they have perfectly content lives.

I think the whole overemphasis on a "natural" environment can get a bit silly. Who defines what is and is not "natural?" There are no corners of the globe which have not in some way been influenced or even "tamed" by human intervention, so it's a bit of a moot point if human tampering is supposed to be the deciding factor.

Most zoo animals take quite well to captivity. The majority of them aren't particularly intelligent. So long as their basic needs are met, they're thrilled with their safety and routine. It's a security blanket, and they settle into a happy complacency, although they might be cramped for space to roam.

It's a different story for the truly smart animals. Things like macaws and yes, orcas, require far more than iron bars or the concrete sides of an aquarium can provide. I don't think it's impossible to keep them humanely, but I think it's exceedingly difficult, requiring a lot of extra work on the part of their human caregivers. And it really bothers me to see the great apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees, on display for gawking crowds. To me, it might as well be a Down Syndrome child down there. Not much difference in principle. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Some people, like the rabid PETA activists, believe that domestic animals are inherently abused. True, many are maltreated, or kept in less than stellar living arrangements. Horses, for example, need plenty of room to roam, but sadly few receive this basic life requirement, leading to severe mental and physical implications. But at the same time, I can look at my spoiled and pampered half-dozen and know without a doubt that they are happy in their posh lives. Sure, they enjoy frolicking in the fields when the weather's nice, but the first hint of rain or cold and they're standing at the barn door, begging to come into warms stalls, to have their soft blankets put on, to sleep in the cushy shavings, to eat their sweet food mixed with their myriad of costly supplements. Yeah.

My good mare, Bones, was injured last May. I'm sure I blogged a few snippets about it in the past, but for a quick summary she turned up lame and unridable, and after months of waiting and failed diagnostics, I buckled down to have her taken to the big equine hospital in Oklahoma. The diagnosis was a badly torn tendon. Apparently the mare was even more steadfast than I realized, for the injury was severe although she hardly limped or seemed to care. Treatment was costly and cutting-edge, involving the cultivation and injections of stem cell-like proteins from the horse's own blood plasma and applications of shockwave therapy. It also included a strict stall rest regimen: first three months of 12-foot by 12-foot confinement, with little to no hand-walking a day, followed of two more months limited to a 30-foot round pen. Bones took in all in stride, which is surprising given her very high strung and reactive nature and her relatively young age. She would gaze longingly at her friends as they cavorted about the pasture or ate the grass she so desperately wanted but could not reach. Many a time I saw her leap in the air and pivot mid-buck to avoid slamming into the metal panels that hedged her in. Most of the day, however, she stood with her head lowered, her eyes half-closed, her hindquarters to the cold wind and snow, depressed and unmoving, perhaps resigned to her fate which she could not affect.

And then, on Tuesday, freedom. Time, according to the doctors' instructions, to turn the horse loose. And you've never seen a happier animal. She flexed her atrophied muscles (to look at her frail frame now, and compare it to her previous bulked-up Schwarzenegger appearance, is quite the juxtaposition) and bolted across the pasture, slid in the mud, leapt up, pivoted, charged another horse, spun around and dashed hell-bent the other way. She's the very picture of athleticism. I cringed to see her fly and slide, because the fibers of the tendon, even if they are healed, are still weak and prone to reinjury—but what can I do?

And so, with trepidation, I saddled her up for the first time in nearly 10 months. She watched me with a cautious eye. Everything fit differently. Her whole conformation has changed. She chomped the bit, perplexed. And I slid into the saddle, adjusting my weight, scared. She balanced beneath me. I asked her to move out. She responded, an easy walk. And then she remembered that she had a reputation to fulfill, that of Crazy, and she gladly reassumed her role, attempting to bolt, throwing her head, prancing sideways. This is the Bones I know!

I was only allowed a few minutes, as the leg and weak muscles can not be overstressed. And I thought she might have limped again, which would mean that all the time and money would have been for naught. But I can't say for sure, so I'll hold off on judgment and pessimism until later. For now, I'm just glad to have my horse back. And I'm sure the horse is glad for her freedom.

I'm back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again

Ridin' the range once more
Totin' my old .44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again

Rockin' to and fro
Back in the saddle again
I go my way
Back in the saddle again

--Gene Autry

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Knack to Vivify

There's a swale ditch that runs through the pasture, and in times of heavy precipitation such as these, it fills with flowing runoff water and there's a veritable creek that cuts the field in half and trickles down through the muddy woods before joining up with other small tributaries and meeting the Pomme de Terre River. It's frozen now with a sludgy kind of snowy ice so that when you try to walk across it bends and moans and stretches down before giving way and setting your feet down gently on the muddy bottom. Stuck out there today, in the oppressively bitter cold with a few casual snow flurries carried on the whipping wind, once again shackled to a grazing horse, bundled up in Carhartt coveralls, earmuffs, and scarf, I entertained myself by trying to balance myself on the ice without breaking it. Good practice, I thought, in case I ever found myself stranded in the middle of a patch of slushy thin ice and had to safely maneuver to solid land. My efforts, unfortunately, were unsuccessful, as time and time again my thankfully waterproof boots splashed through and stirred up murky eddies. Having failed at this objective, I next diverted myself by picking up glassy shards and observed their clarity and ripples. In breaking the ice and peeling it back, I suddenly thought about the microcosm in the cold water below. Was I disturbing it in my thoughtless destruction? Would the cold kill the organisms that lived inside?

And so, in the mud of the woods in the pasture, while my horse nudged the frozen grass halfheartedly and gave me a look like I was crazy, I bent down on my knees and peered into the icy water.

Instant gratification.

For what did I see almost immediately, crawling and sliding among strands of filamentous algae, but a tiny turbellarian flatworm? Yes, less than a centimeter long and a millimeter wide, the tiny paper-thin form reared its head and searched along the bottom of the muddy still water. I leaned and stared and observed its life.

We studied these things in a Zoology course I took last year. They truly are fascinating creatures, if you're into that invertebrate sort of thing. Like many of the so-called "lower" animals, they possess remarkable capabilities of regeneration. We performed an experiment on them once—"surgery," the professor called it, but "butchery" would have been more appropriate. My partner and I cut off our worm's head with a fine razor blade, then split the body halfway down. The head should have grown a new stunted body, while the bisected remains should have sprouted two new heads. Alas, some contaminant killed our unfortunate fellow(s) within a week, just as they were starting to heal and regrow. Another one makes the ultimate sacrifice in the quest for scientific knowledge.

If I was a planarian, what would my world view be? I try to recall knowledge from the class. Turbellarians cannot "see" in our sense of the word, but they can detect light through ocelli which look like nothing but the eyes of a comical cartoon character. What else? They can feel touch, and they don't much like it. They feed through a "mouth" on their ventral surface which rather resembles a penis, yet they are hermaphroditic.

And what if someone lopped off my head and cleaved my neck? Would I split in three? What would my new heads say? Would they share my memory? Would they act and talk and think like the original "me?" Would I curse the person who cut me, or thank them for allowing me to grow to this new wonderful form?

So I sat and stared and pondered until the horse urged me on up the creek to another spot, where she contentedly stopped to graze. I peeled back the ice here, too, and got right to work just looking. And oh God, what have I been missing all these years when I didn't know to see?

There's a story about the Native Americans; whether it's true I don't know. As the tale goes, the Indians, when the first European ships sailed to the New World bearing White Man, could not see them. For days they gazed right through the slowly growing blots on the horizon. Without comprehension, without a point of reference for comparison, the ships simply did not exist. Only when a shaman stared down the clouds did he realize the truth, which he then shared with the people, and their eyes were opened.

Yes. And here, down in the murk, my newly-sighted eyes spied one, two, no, seven, eight planarians creeping and feeding in a five square inch plot of mud. But they've been there all along! And around them little tiny aquatic plants released little tiny bubbles to the surface—oxygen!—the product of their photosynthesis, light- and carbon-fixing. And that's been happening all this time!

I'm reduced to a simpleton, a child, finding fascination in the most mundane things. But they aren't mundane. They are remarkably complex, intricate, complicated, important, and even in the midst of this bitter winter—the worst I've ever known—they continue on.

There's hope there. As the flatworm regenerates its severed head, so too will the trees put forth new buds and leaves, and the ground will thaw, and the air will warm.

Spring is around the bend, bringing whispered promises and hope.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Another Depressing Death

Yep, poor Frosty. Didn’t stand a chance against six horses who gathered their collective courage and banded together to neutralize the threat. After losing his ears and eyebrows to a hungry Buddy, the beleaguered snowman was deprived of his arms by a smug Rebel. Bones and Mack knocked his head off while Brandy hung back apprehensively. Then Sawyer moved in and with a few powerful pawing kicks toppled the whole thing over. All the horses seemed a little too proud of themselves as they clustered together to sniff and lick the battered mound of snow.

I thoroughly enjoyed the snow (look how much!)—but the aftermath of mud is a different story. Today, while tromping through the pasture, horse in tow, I walked clear out of my sole. The rubber bottom of one of my nice boots simply stuck firm in the slop and pulled completely away. It was a pitiful one-legged hop back to the house to change footwear.

So—is it Spring yet? I’ve seen a few robins, those happy harbingers of the fairest season, but if Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions hold true, we’ve still got a lot of cold ahead of us. Which might explain the freezing fog this morning and the eerie frosty landscape. Oh well. I’ll crawl back under the covers for another six weeks of hibernation and bide my time ‘til rebirth and renewal.