Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Animals, Cuteness, and Pain

We who love nature have conflicts over cuteness and pain. We give animals human attributes. Identifying with animals isn't all bad.

Whenever I'm with a group and have an opportunity to grab a white-footed mouse, a meadow vole, or a smooth green snake, I do - for Show and Tell. I apologize to the animal, which means nothing to it, but it means something to me.

The Morton Arboretum's Ray Schulenburg, a great conservationist and ethicist, was critical of people picking up animals. He said it was demeaning to the animal. Just because we have the power to dominate them against their will, should we? He said, No!

But I want to show the mouse (or snake or salamander) to the people with me because, chances are, some of them will gain some level of empathy they hadn't had. Regularly, people start out "Argghh! Get that away from me!" and slowly move to "Well, ewwww, well, could I look a little closer?" And then, "Can I hold it?" Soon they'll be purring, "It's soft. It's beautiful. I never thought I'd like ..." a snake or a mouse or for some, even a strange mushroom.

Many people ultimately feel these experiences are valuable to them. Identifying with animals helps them care more for life and its future on this planet.

Later in this post, there will be photos of two recently dead animals. They died violently. If you don't want to be subjected to animals looking more like meat, don't read past the bird's nest with nut.

Most people never see a mouse, or snake, or salamander. Such animals need to be shown to them. On the other hand, they do see birds.


Birds are the great ambassadors of conservation, because they're out and about - visible during the day time. Not nocturnal, or under logs.

They also leave evidence as nests. The weaving below was the only evidence of an animal I saw on one winter walk. The maker was "rascally" or "cute" in that it made off with a piece of flagging that we had tied somewhere to mark some restoration need - and the bird wove it into her nest.


To take a better photo (to show you) I pulled out some dead leaves that had fallen in, and then saw another surprise.


Lying in the nest was a hickory nut. It didn't fall there, because the nest was far from any trees in a shrub copse. It was carried there by a white-footed mouse while it was storing autumn food away for the hard times of winter. Once I found a whole nest full of pure tick-trefoil seeds - little beans, stored by some industrious mouse for a snowy, hungry day. Wild mice are cute, precious, and a main food of hawks, snakes, owls, and coyotes, which do them violence.

Winter is harsh and raw, and challenging to delicate senses. We don’t see colorful flowers or butterflies. Even the birds that stay for winter in the temperate zone lose their bright colors and tend toward brown or black and white. All the mammals are mostly black or white or brown or gray.


Young animals have their first (and often their last) major struggles in their first winter. Later, we found the remains of a young red-tailed hawk. 


It still had its juvenile brown tail. We at Somme had been watching that hawk all fall. It was this year's baby, relatively curious, tame, and friendly. It had itself "viciously" torn apart a great many white-footed mice during its short life. But great-horned owls eat hawks - that don't know better than to sit on exposed perches during the night. Now this one was gone. Its parent flew nearby.


Some of us found the corpse fascinating - an opportunity to see this raptor up close. Some, who treasured nature when it was beautiful or tender, now were sad, bummed out, conflicted.


I myself am conflicted by the great-horn generally. At Somme we rarely hear or see a screech owl or a barred owl, largely, we believe, because the great-horned owls eat them all. The only long-eared owl I've ever seen at Somme was lying in pieces beneath a great-horned's perch.

We used to have foxes, but the coyotes killed them or scared them out into odd niches in nearby suburbs. Most preserves are not large or varied enough to have their full diversity of animals. The great-horned is a super-adaptable omnivore that, in a simplified habitat, wipes out smaller owls and certain other species.

But overall, larger predators mean healthier nature and richer biodiversity. Would that our little preserve could have eagles and wolves.


Colorful patches of coyote urine and blood puzzled me at first. I felt bad for this predator (that rips apart cuddly-looking baby raccoons and opossums). Did some human miscreant injure our coyote in some way? Fortunately, steward Paul Swanson could enlighten me when he saw that photo. As female coyotes are getting ready to breed, their urine starts to show blood. "When a male coyote loves a female coyote very much," the two travel and hunt together, and every time the female pees, the male pees next to it. Very tender.

Coyotes help the ecosystem big time. When foxes were the biggest predator we had, there were so excessively many meso-predators (especially raccoons and opossums) that some snakes and ground-nesting bird species were in danger of being wiped out. Coyote predation restored a more natural balance.

Coyotes kill fawns. They also eat most of the Chicago region's adult deer, sooner or later. But they don't kill them. Most are killed by cars (or sharp-shooters working for the Village or the Forest Preserve District if there's a good culling program, which most preserves need, in the absence of the Potawatomi, wolves, and mountain lions).

Also at a workday, Russ Sala noticed what looked like a deer lying on the railroad tracks. We investigated.


A commuter train had cut this young buck in half. How horrible is this! What a way to die! And yet, would you rather die by wolves, or sharp-shooters?

In the absence of any kind of predator, deer become so over-abundant that they utterly destroy many species of shrub, bird, orchid, and other victims.

So I feel horrified for the deer when I see a dead one, but at the same time I feel glad for the ecosystem. Doing conservation and loving nature means coming to terms with these conflicts. I pulled both halves of the deer off the tracks and into the forest. Would it have been "more natural" for it to stay where it was? To leave it there felt wrong. When I checked back two days later, the coyotes had eaten all the best parts. Over the winter they and others would leave nothing but bones.


Bones seem to grow more abstract and more eloquent as they get older.


For me at least, they are not mostly reminders of death. They remind of life, complexity, richness, and the honor of being a human who can enjoy, and try to do some good, as the world turns.

Photo Credits
Mouse: Eriko Kojima
Nuthatch: Lisa Culp Musgrave
Others: my cell phone.


3 comments:

Paul Showers said...

I believe that dead animals of all sorts are probably going to end up making a positive addition to the soil in some form. Lots of invertebrates are probably going to benefit from the cycle of life when a deer goes to the happy hunting ground.

Deborah Antlitz said...

Good observations and reflections.

At Spring Lake Nature Preserve, there are both great horned owls and barred owls in the same general area. Occasionally a screech owl is heard on the fringes nearer to residences. The barred owls tend to be heard and seen along the creek and wetlands and in the woods that slope toward the creek and wetlands. What was telling one year was when I raised tadpoles in my gravel driveway. around the time the tadpoles were ready to emerge into frogs the barred owl showed up at the top of a tree overlooking the driveway pond in broad daylight. Because of the wetness of the glacial lake valley one tends to see far more sign of frogs than mice, and I think the barred owl is more adapted to hunting frogs. the dark eyes perhaps can discern movement in water for the sheen on the top of the water? Great horned owls can also come to the residence but also in the more upland woodlands and surrounding dryer fields. I am certain it is not a 'neat and clean' partition, but perhaps enough of a difference they reduce conflict most days.

Stephen Packard said...

As Deborah wrote, the Spring Creek Preserves are big enough to have a lot more owls. The Somme preserves envy Spring Creek's thousands of acres. There may be potential for Somme to compensate, to some extent, with habitat restoration. The wet lowland woods, where we see the barred owls on the rare occasions that we do see them, until recently was densely choked with invasives. Perhaps as the habitat there becomes more diverse and productive or prey, the barred owls will come back. Already returned are red-headed woodpeckers, Cooper's hawks, breeding woodcocks, lots of flickers, crested flycatchers, and many others. In the meantime, sometimes we drive down Dundee Road and visit Spring Creek.