Posts Tagged ‘Animals’

Here I am reporting again from that troublesome border between human and beast. Should you not think the border is particularly problematic, consider the case of the backyard chicken.

Last year Brunswick passed a law allowing in-town homeowners to keep chickens. My daughters were thrilled, as I knew they would be. They love animals.

I’ll say it again: they love animals. Did they want chickens? Badly. Eggs? Yes. Did they want to feed, chase, cuddle with, and otherwise harass the chickens? Yes. Did they want cute silky chickens with furry legs, handsome wine-colored chickens, chickens with stained glass feathers? Absolutely.

Did they want savory chicken stew with homegrown carrots and potatoes? No. Emphatically no. Not open for discussion. Never. Ever. We were not going to kill our chickens.

At first I thought this might be OK. I knew chickens only laid eggs for a few years, but I didn’t think they had a particularly long life span after that. It wouldn’t be so bad to allow them to live out their few short retirement years, scratching dirt, eating slugs, learning to knit and doing all the fun things they never had time for.

That was my plan until my husband said, “Seriously, how long does a chicken live?” Oh, not that long, I ho-hummed. Then I went and looked it up. Ten years was not uncommon, fifteen not unheard of.

Well, that was a game-changer. I was in this for the eggs, for the unique pleasure that comes from growing your own food. I wasn’t in it for a scant two years of omelettes followed by eight years of paying to feed a flock of lawn ornaments.

Uh, kids, can we talk? They promptly burst into tears, imagining the future slaughter of their future beloved pet birds. We can’t get chickens, I said, if we can’t take them to the butcher when they’re done laying. Then no chickens, replied the kids.

And so we talked. We talked about chicken intelligence (would they know we had betrayed them?) We talked about knowing where our food comes from. We talked about being vegetarian. We talked about eating eggs and meat. We talked about bacon. We talked about looking our food in the eye. We talked about respecting the lives of other creatures. We talked about honesty and hypocrisy. Nothing too heavy, really.

Then we rested. In the car, the next day, they said, let’s talk about the chickens some more. At bedtime they had even more questions. I couldn’t answer most of them. I could, however, hear the little gears turning in their heads.

My youngest daughter held out the longest. She has, in fact, some reasonable credentials in the save the animals department. Even the lowly tick I pulled off her back last summer had to be taken into the garden. It was just trying to eat, she observed. I didn’t say whose garden I put it in.

I recalled a conversation with her a few years back. We were planting a raspberry bush and came across by far the largest grub I have ever seen–a truly disgusting creature, fully the size of my thumb. It was the type of thing that evil villains in sci-fi movies put into their victims ears, you know, to eat their brains. I placed the grub, too horrible to squish, on the lawn and went back to my planting.

A while later my daughter noticed the grub was gone. Maybe a bird ate it, I said. But, she protested, that would be so sad! You like birds, I said, with calm, impenetrable parental logic. They have to eat too. Yes, she replied, but they should eat grubs we haven’t met yet.

Doesn’t that just say it all? Our obligations to those we know are inherently different than to those we don’t know. Sometimes that’s as it should be. We can’t attend to all of humanity the same way we care for our friends and family.

But it’s also true that many of the world’s problems stem from our inability to connect our actions to their consequences, especially when those consequences occur in far off places to people and animals “we haven’t met yet.”

This is why it’s so wonderful for kids to engage with the world in ways that begin to light up the path between action and consequence. The eggs we get from the market, even the free-range, organic, super-happy-singing chicken eggs, are eggs that come from chickens that will likely be slaughtered as soon as their laying years are done. Most farmers can’t afford to support unproductive birds.

My girls have decided to go ahead with the grand chicken experiment. I worry a bit that I’ve talked them into something they really don’t want to do. After all, they told me right from the start that they’ll be mushed when we kill the chickens. If it turns out to be terribly traumatic, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Yet, raising chickens shines a flood light on at least some of the issues surrounding what it means to eat animal products. It’s a rare, honest interaction with the world–perhaps something we should be doing more often.

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A roomful of owls has a special feel before you’ve glimpsed even a single feather. Pondering those huge serious eyes, it’s nearly impossible to suppress rampant anthropomorphizing about the wisdom, pride and intelligence of these mysterious birds.

Owl collage, Carl Newmark, age 8

In this room, the owls are lined up in seven solid wooden cases of amusingly different sizes, ordered from big to small like a toddler’s game of blocks. I imagine the little box at the end of the row must house a northern saw-whet owl, considerably shorter than a banana, and, at about seven inches, a hair too tall to claim the title of world’s smallest owl.

The very tall case at the other end of the row poses more of a mystery; perhaps a great-horned?

What is most intriguing to me, is that the crates are utterly silent. These birds, ranging from top predators to imps the size of tin cans, are not giving anything out for free. We just have to wait.

We are piled into the final of four live owl presentations at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm Nature Center in Falmouth. The show has a waiting list. People love owls.

It is indeed a saw-whet that comes out first. Owl experts, Mark and Marcia Wilson, host the event. The couple have state and federal permits to keep live owls, which is otherwise illegal. The owls in their care are unable to live in the wild owing either to injuries or because they were born in captivity.

As she introduces each owl, Marcia teaches the owl’s call to a young person she selects from the audience. Marcia hoots first, the kid hoots back, the owl looks bemusedly from one to the other. Owls don’t hoot during presentations.

My 9-year-old daughter, Rae, is called up to learn the hoot of the saw-whet. Only it turns out to be more of a whistle than a hoot. Rae has trouble with her whistle but she pulled one off, flushed red with excitement. The saw-whet, she told me later, while unbearably cute, had a demonic gleam in its eye when you got up close. Even the little ones are predators.

Out of the next, slightly larger boxes come two eastern screech owls. These owls come in two flavors: slate-gray or bright fox-red. Siblings from the same hatch can sport either color. The Wilsons bring out one of each, looking like identical twins dipped in different dye lots. Eastern screeches have short compact bodies and huge “ear tufts,” making them look rather comical. Owl’s ear tufts have nothing to do with ears; their real ears are located under feathers on the side of their heads.

As the boxes get larger we meet a friendly barred owl and the stately great-horned I was expecting.

But, it’s the next owl that makes the biggest impression on me. Owl people often tell you that when you look at an owl you should imagine being a mouse. This, you understand, is intended to control the rampant anthropomorphizing I mentioned earlier, to get you to understand that these are not the benevolent, magical letter carriers of Harry Potter books, but fearsome hunters that swallow their prey whole and spit up the skeletons. It’s called mouse-o-pomorphizing.

I tell you, though, what comes out of this next crate requires no imagining. Mouse or no, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of this bird. It’s a snowy owl.

Maybe it’s having a bad day, maybe it’s just plain old ticked off that humanity is in the process of melting to puddles its arctic homeland, but whatever the reason, it comes out hissing like a goose. Except that it isn’t making any noise. Its shoulders are hunched, its head down, its beak open, its wings raised. It glares. It flaps. It’s panting a little because, apparently, the room is too hot. The doors and windows are open, I have a down vest on. It’s mid-December.

Snowys in the arctic like to relax on bare windswept tundra with nary a bit of snow or ice to snuggle up against. Anecdotally, geese will sometimes nest close to snowys because the owls are so effective at driving off other predators such as foxes. During the non-breeding season, snowys are almost entirely silent.

Finally there is just one, very large, box to go. This bird is a breathtaking tapestry of tans and browns, in bands and spots, stripes and lines, topped with huge pumpkin orange eyes. It’s the largest owl in the world, and the only non-native in the group: a Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo in Latin, for you word people out there). They can have a wingspan of 5 feet and weigh nearly 10 pounds. This chap sits peacefully as Marcia spreads his silky feathers.

Owl feathers look like velvet; they are designed to silence the birds’ powerful wing strokes, allowing them to sneak up on dinner. A goose wing feather, in contrast, has a rough, spiky construction. There’s simply no need, the Wilsons point out, for a goose to sneak up on the clump of grass it is planning to eat. Ha! Gotcha!

Too soon it is over and we stand to go. My girls bubble up, saying, “Thank you! Thank you for taking us!”

My father loved birds. I’ve always thought of my interest as a gift from him. I’m not a real birder; I forget my binoculars, I don’t have a life list, I can’t tell one sandpiper from another, and just forget about identifying warblers — but seeing birds makes me happy.

The red cardinal out the window is still a treat, hummingbirds in the garden are still thrilling, and remembering the hoopoe that I saw in Spain 20 years ago still fills me with joy. What better gift could you give your children than something that makes them smile with delight nearly every day, for the rest of their lives?

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“…Prayed for the moon to give him light, For he’d many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o.” Unfortunately, he never made it because someone shot him and gave him to my aunt.  She skinned him, tanned him, sewed a bag out of him, and mailed him to me.

Fox skin bag made by my aunt, Signe Toldstrup

Fox skin bag made by my aunt, Signe Toldstrup

I’ve never owned an animal fur.  In my mind furs have mostly been associated with such images as week-old baby harp seals being clubbed to death for fluffy white coats.  My fox-skin bag, I knew, was unlikely to have similarly disturbing origins, but still, a slight uneasiness made me call my aunt for more details.

Apparently, where she lives, disruptions to the ecosystem resulted in an over-abundance of foxes.  The animals got sick and passed illnesses among themselves and to other creatures.  The local government began paying hunters to shoot a portion of the fox population every year, resulting in a better ecological balance and piles of unwanted fox skins.

My aunt was raised on a small farm in Europe during World War II.  One could hardly imagine an upbringing more likely to create a practical, thrifty child, neither sentimental nor squeamish, indeed just the type to look at a golden-brown stack of discarded fox pelts and decide it was high time to learn the traditional arts of skinning and tanning.

So it was that my bag passed its test of moral worthiness, safely endowed with the deep ecological virtue of being made from a resource that would otherwise have been thrown out.  But ironically, to the uninformed eye my bag looked to be something altogether different.  For in our culture, what is a fur jacket, stole or bag, if not a symbol of all that has gone wrong with humankind’s connection to the earth?

The oftentimes needlessly cruel slaughter of baby harp seals for ladies coats is emblematic of our relationship to nature run amok.  We take more than we need.  We kill for vanity and greed rather than for food, tools or shelter.  We kill without respect, without every effort to avoid suffering, and without a duty to make full use of the lives we take.

Isn’t it curious, though, that fur, of all materials, should have come to have these negative associations?  Along with food, there is little more important to our survival on a most elemental level than warm clothing and shelter – which for all but the last little blip of history have been made largely from animal skins.

The great wealth of our society has allowed us to distance ourselves from the real requirements of survival.  We no longer have to rely on using the actual skins of animals to stay warm and we no longer need to look creatures in the eye before we dine on them.

This hands-off connection to the sources of our sustenance contributes to a sentimental view of nature that is not always conducive to protecting it.  We’ve drawn artificial lines between what is wild and everything else.  But our food and clothing still come from somewhere, and that somewhere is still connected to real animals, real soil, real land and real water.

Most cattle in the U.S., for example, are raised in gigantic over-crowded factory farms (called CAFOs, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations).  These farms, if you can call them that, generate prodigious volumes of manure that overwhelm the capacity of nearby farmland to absorb.  Consequently, the manure, which on smaller farms is a much needed fertilizer, becomes a toxic pollutant – contributing significantly to declining water quality throughout the U.S.

Raising beef in this way causes grave harm to the environment and is arguably inhumane for the animals, yet it’s very easy on the squeamish consumer – just unwrap the nicely sealed package, pop it on the grill, and voila, dinner.

Deer hunting, by contrast, makes many of us uncomfortable.  It challenges our romantic vision of cute wild animals roaming the woods and it challenges our idea that the only way to save nature is to enshrine it and leave it alone.

But, if you’re going to eat meat it would be hard to argue that eating beef from a large factory farm is better for the planet (or the animals) than eating venison from a Maine forest.  Likewise, it’s surely better to make bags from foxes that are too numerous to be healthy, than to make bags from nylon or polyester – both petroleum products.

Of course we’re not usually offered such choices.  My point here is simply that if our goal is to protect the environment, there is something to be said for having more intimacy with the natural world and with the materials we take from it.  Restoring this intimacy is one of the great promises of the growing movement to purchase local products.

Understanding a bit about what it takes to grow a carrot on a Merrymeeting Bay farm, harvest a tree from a Richmond wood lot, or raise a lamb on a Brunswick pasture, can only help us come to a better understanding of the bigger environmental issues with which are now faced.

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Go outside and put your ear to the earth.  Listen hard, like an owl, and you might hear something: a flap, rustle, or slither.  If you live in a temperate climate, as we do in Maine, you are at this very moment, smack in the midst of a great thrumming biological process of which you may be largely oblivious.  It’s called spring migration.


Perhaps you’ve noticed the snowbirds returning from the south.  These are not birds, mind you, but people who sensibly fled the frost and are now coming back with a fantastic host of other creatures who turned tail before the ice last fall.


As these folks drive north on Highway 95 from the likes of Snead’s Ferry and Folly Beach, they are accompanied by a rainbow of purple martins, orange orioles, and yellow warblers arcing above them.  Through the months of May and June swarms of fish charge in from the sea, clear glass eels climb through the weeds around the dams, and horseshoe crabs soldier out of the deeps.


As do we all, I relish spring’s explosion of plant growth.  But the plants have been sitting in the same spot all winter.  There is something entirely different about the astonishing influx of life that comes with migration.


It’s usually my birding friends who alert me that spring migration is underway.  Although I pride myself on my ability to distinguish a scarlet tanager from, say a blue jay (not a difficult feat, as you might imagine), every year I’m startled by an offhand comment, such as, “Oh look, the warblers are back!”  “Back?” I think to myself.  Oh, yes, they’re migratory, aren’t they?


I’m once again reminded of how disconnected we are from the critical processes running the planet.  Only a species as free from the constraints of eating locally as are modern humans, could be unaware of the surge of protein spring migration brings into our neighborhoods.  We no longer need to stand hungrily by the river banks, nets in hand, waiting for the first fish to arrive.  We just go to the market.


This year, in an effort to make sure all the migratory drama didn’t pass me by unnoticed, I had to resort to listing on my calendar the approximate arrival times of a few key species.


First in line were the horseshoe crabs.  These ancient creatures make an annual landward migration to spawn under just the circumstances in which you might take out your silver basin and whip up a potion to get rid of warts.  That is, they show up en masse on certain favored beaches in late May, at high tide, under a full or new moon.


Fortunately not all of them wait for the middle of the night and that is why I stumbled across them during an afternoon outing to Thomas Point Beach several years ago.  Last week, right on cue, there were hundreds upon hundreds of crabs, some larger than dinner plates, snuffling into the sand to lay their eggs.


Next on the calendar was a note to trot across the street at sunset to watch the chimney swifts make their charming group nose dive into the chimney of Brunswick’s old high school.  Despite having recently completed a 2,000 mile journey from the Amazon River Basin, chimney swifts fly continuously from dawn to dusk without perching.


The end of May also brings the spring running of alewives at Damariscotta Mills.  They come in from the ocean to spawn in our lakes and ponds.  I once read a historical account of salmon runs in Alaska that told of fish so thick you could walk across the rivers on their backs.  Surely, I thought, the days in which wildlife scurried about in such outrageous abundance were long gone.


Yet the alewife run at the Mills continues to be just such a spectacle.  At the peak of the run, the water is black with tens of thousands of fish and, were it allowed, you could scoop them out by the bucket-full.


That the integrity of our native habitats depends on migrations to remain healthy is made clear simply by reading the list of creatures that feed on alewives: striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, American eel, rainbow- brown- and lake trout, landlocked salmon, smallmouth bass, pickerel, pike, white and yellow perch, bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons, gulls, terns, cormorants, seals, whales, otter, mink, raccoon, fox, weasel, fisher, and turtles.  Alewives are also a prime food used for baiting lobster traps.


Watching all these newly arrived critters flood into the state brings life to all the words we learned from nature specials: migration, spawning, roosting, mating.  Indeed, if we recognize what we are seeing, May in Maine is a nature special.  These migrations are just as important as they were when our ancestors waited for spring to fill their growling stomachs.


We live in a place where the world’s biological rhythms, the seasonality of plants and creatures, are still close at hand.  For myself, I’m waiting for the day when I see the first spring hummingbird and think to myself not just “there’s a hummingbird,” but rather, “the hummingbirds are back.”

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Picture an illuminated manuscript, as ancient as the first protozoan, sitting on a table in a library. Imagine it to be a catalog of all the creatures that have ever existed, of every slinking, hopping, replicating, blood-sucking, fluttering, gilled, furred and armored organism: an unabridged bestiary of life.


Elena Newmark, age 13

Elena Newmark, age 13


I open the door to the library sending a dark storm of brittle paper swirling into the air. The book is in a terrible state of disrepair. Thousands of pages, thundering with mammoths and swooping with cat-sized dragonflies, have disintegrated into dust eons ago.


Many pages, however, have crumbled more recently. In the detritus on the floor, one can still find fragments of creatures that vanished from the earth only within the last century: the stripes of a Tasmanian wolf, the toe of a Golden toad.


As more and more species have become imperiled, decay has spread onto nearly all the book’s pages. Although extinctions have been common enough throughout our planet’s history, their pace has accelerated wildly. Conservation groups estimate that human activity has increased the rate of extinctions by 1,000 to 10,000 times more than the ‘background’ level (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).


Pause for a moment to let this sink in: one in four mammals are at high risk of extinction in the near future, along with one in three amphibians, half of all tortoises and freshwater turtles, and one in eight birds.


I open the book, aiming for the letter “C.” It flips easily to the pages in best repair: sharp and sturdy chickadees, skittering chipmunks. The page I’m looking for is still fairly bright, but signs of stress are visible and gray paint rubs off on my fingers. I offer greetings to my friends, the Chimney swifts.


These lovely birds used to roost by the thousands inside the hollow husks of giant trees. When we cleared the aging forests, the swifts made a remarkable adaptation. They abandoned their woody dwellings, and settled into the large brick chimneys of our churches, mills and schools.


All was well for awhile, until we began tearing down old buildings and upgrading chimneys (swifts cannot cling to the smooth linings of new chimneys). In the last 30 years, as their roosting spots have disappeared, Chimney swift numbers have predictably dropped: 95% in Canada and 44% worldwide.


Oh, you silly, optimistic Chimney swifts, what could you have been thinking, throwing in your lot with us? You’d think we’d be more appreciative. Every spring you migrate up here from the Amazon to provide us with free, non-toxic, pest management services: a nest of four babies will daily be fed around 12,000 mosquitoes, biting flies, and other bugs. You catch all these bugs without stopping even once to rest until you finally turn in for the evening.


And, then what a wonderful spectacle you provide for your nightly finale: one minute there are hundreds of you swirling about the sky, and then within seconds, you all spiral into your roost and vanish. Visualize a video of smoke suddenly billowing out of a chimney, and then run the video backwards so the chimney appears to suck the smoke out of the sky: such is the effect.


We imagine the world’s natural spectacles occurring in the jungles and forests of far off lands; we don’t expect them to happen in our downtowns. But the Chimney swifts can easily be seen by most people reading this column.


The largest known roost in Maine is in the chimney of the old Brunswick High School, slated to be torn down later this year. The 2009 migration has already begun and the birds should be at peak numbers by the third week of May.


For a species declining as rapidly as the swifts, the preservation of such a roost could be a significant factor in their survival. Fewer than 20 other roosts exist in the state of Maine and Maritime provinces combined.


Why should we care about these birds that most of us didn’t know existed?


A friend once observed that old time Mainers had the peculiar habit of giving directions by referring to things that were no longer present. They might say, for example, “take a right where the dairy farm used to be.” Why don’t they say, instead, “take a right at the new Maple Grove housing development?” It must surely be because the new development has no character and no personality; it has no sense of place.


Brunswick’s Chimney swifts are woven into what makes this region special, meaningful, quirky and lovable, just as every living creature is part of what makes our planet special, meaningful, quirky and lovable. Without our swifts, we take one step closer to becoming nowhere.


How terrible it would be to discover that we cared about these birds only after they stopped flying over our heads, eating our mosquitoes, and chittering into the long dusk.


We can help the swifts. When the old chimney comes down, we can construct a new brick chimney for them, anchoring the new elementary school to be built on the same site. Replacement chimneys in other locations have been successful at attracting swifts, and in some places have become significant tourist attractions.


I say come out, come out, Mainers, old and new. It’s painfully hard to identify, let alone save, the elements that create sense of place and make us care so deeply for this unique spot in which we are lucky to live.


How often does anyone hand us a chance to truly make a difference in the preservation of an entire species? How often do we get to take out our paintbrushes and repair a page in the universal bestiary?


A new generation of Mainers will soon be tearing around the halls of our new elementary school. Let them not be the generation to say, “turn left where the swifts used to roost.”


Fundraising for the new roost is well underway, but at least $5,000 remains to be raised (as of May 2009). Please consider donating to this rare and wonderful opportunity. To make a contribution or for more information, visit Merrymeeting Audubon’s website at: www.maineaudubon.org/merrymeeting. You can also contact Ted Allen at 207-729-8661.


To view the swifts, go at dusk to the back parking lot of the old high school; there will be Audubon volunteers present during peak migration–the last few weeks of May into early June.

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Some of you may remember Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis.  The son of an unfortunate family, he wakes one day to find that he has changed into an enormous cockroach – a creature that evolution apparently perfected 350 million years ago, before it even got going on dinosaurs – and hasn’t touched since.  This is one primitive bug.  


Perhaps you could, with an effort, imagine a family member turning into a mammal of some sort: a smart, warm-blooded creature, definitely furry, like a golden retriever or a three-toed sloth.  But a cockroach?  Forget it.  Kafka’s story draws its unbearable horror from the contrast between a highly evolved intelligent consciousness trapped inside the primordial casing of a roach’s body.


The fact is we are sharing our planet with a number of creatures that are hundreds of millions of years old.  Roaches have not soldiered forward through time on their own; they came with hoards of horseshoe crabs, dragonflies, army ants, velvet worms, salamanders, chambered nautiluses, crocodiles, and a coelacanth or two.


You’ll notice that many of these time travelers are small.  Larger creatures are often less adaptable to the dramatic changes in climate, habitat, and food sources that come with the passing of millennia.  Nor is there much room in our developed world for gigantic, primitive, scary beings, like 6 foot tall roaches.  Poor Gregor, it should be no surprise to discover, was confined to his bedroom for the rest of his short buggy life.


Yet there is a place in our neighborhoods where large prehistoric creatures still dwell: they are just below the thin bright mirror that separates us from the underwater world.  Gregor might have had better luck if he’d turned into an Atlantic sturgeon.


Beneath the surface of mid-coast Maine’s Merrymeeting Bay, or the lower reaches of the Kennebec, Penobscot and Androscoggin Rivers, you will find lurking these bony, reptilian, dinosaur fish.  Sturgeon fossils, virtually unchanged from modern fish, date back 200 million years.  These are not your run-of-the mill pond guppies.  They are an ancient great sea-faring race, living up to 60 years and by some accounts reaching lengths of 15 feet (just about the size of your canoe).  Like other sea-run or “anadromous” fish, sturgeon spend most of their lives in salt water and return to spawn in the same fresh water rivers in which they were born.


Sturgeon are so fantastic-looking they would draw the attention of even the most Nintendo-weary child.  They appear to be a cross between a crocodile and a catfish, with just a hint of porcupine.  They mingle the dark sexiness of the shark with the calm invulnerability of the turtle. Their armored bodies are covered with bony plates called scutes (ha! that finally stumped the spell-checker) and their long snouts end in whiskery sensory organs called barbels.  


Although the oceans deep and rivers wild have offered some protection for these darlings of evolution, that fishy film of safety is thinning.  Atlantic sturgeon have suffered a precipitous decline in the last century.  Loss of spawning habitat due to development and damming of rivers, pollution, and over-harvesting are all causes of their decline.  


The east coast commercial sturgeon harvest peaked in the 1890s and by the 1920s sturgeon landings in the Chesapeake were down 90% (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).  Atlantic sturgeon are under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act (their closely related cousins, the Shortnose sturgeon are already protected under the Act).  In 1998 the government issued a moratorium on harvesting any wild sturgeon until the populations had recovered sufficiently.  Plans to help the sturgeon are largely focused on improving water quality in spawning rivers as well as creating sufficient passageway around dams.


Why am I telling you about these fish?  These sturgeon that even now are swimming under the Route 1 bridge between Bath and Woolwich?  Do I have something especially cheery to tell you about them?  Not exactly.  Some populations appear to be rebounding, while others are still depressed.  Do I have ten easy things you can do at home to save the sturgeon?  Not really.


I’m telling you about them because they are great.  Knowing that sturgeon have been snuffling river bottoms and ocean canyons for millions of years before the Androscoggin River existed simply demands a bit of respect.  On those grounds I suppose the cockroach deserves the same respect, but roaches seem to be doing just fine and by all predictions will be the ones turning out the lights.  


I’m telling you so that perhaps you too will be be amazed by one of earth’s amazing creatures.  And perhaps, in time, humans may evolve just a bit more so that the sturgeon can continue swimming along just exactly as it is. 

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Elena Newmark, age 13

Elena Newmark, age 13


What is the worth of a Salamander in the Hand?  To a child exploring her world, is a salamander in the hand worth two under the log?  Does holding the fragile creature, as it perilously dries out, reinforce some primal connection to nature that remains stubbornly inert if she just looks at it?  


The theory that hands-on interactions bring benefits unachievable through other means is supported by decades of research on how people learn.  It’s why science classes visit tide pools, it’s why we dissected frogs in high school biology, and it’s why I still remember what volvox look like.


My 7th grade science class, about which I recall little else, collected water from a local pond, looked at drops under the microscope, and then constructed fabulous models of the creatures we found.  Volvox, a type of algae, are pale, ethereal balls, coated in fine translucent hairs, and often filled with smaller brilliant green globes (baby volvoxes).  I thought they were irresistibly wonderful.


I am convinced that kids should get their hands dirty, wade in shin deep mud, climb trees, build forts, and catch frogs.  Yet I have often found it oddly difficult to let my kids live this way.  One problem, of course, is that all this romantic mucking about requires young kids to have unsupervised time in natural places: something most of us are no longer comfortable with.


Carl Newmark, age 10

"Can I keep it Mommy?" Carl Newmark, age 10



But for me there is another problem.  Much of the time my family spends in nature is in areas set aside as protected places, such as state parks and land trust preserves.  The ethic in all these places, if not the actual rule of law, is to disturb the surroundings as little as possible.  In other words, keep your hands off.  At these places I teach my kids to stay on the trail, out of the trees, and off the slow-growing moss.


In our heavily used wilderness areas, an entire school of outdoor recreation has developed known as “leave-no-trace.”  You brush your very footsteps away as you leave your campsite.  This may seem silly here in sparsely populated Maine, but if you’ve ever seen the banks of once pristine alpine streams eroded into mud slides by hundreds of hikers having lunch, you’ll understand where the idea comes from.  Leaving no trace may be okay for adults, but can we teach our children to love and respect nature if we treat it like a museum?


Pondering all this recently, I decided I should let my kids spend some time in natural areas that did not have as many rules as our usual outdoor haunts.  We walked to a small wooded area just a few blocks from our house.  No trails to hike, no peaks to climb, no swimming holes to dive into, no rules.



Within minutes the kids had found five dark, sinuous salamanders, each with a red stripe running down its back.  My six year old cupped one in her hand, her giant finger petted its head.  “I’m snuggling with it!  Isn’t it cute?,” she said.  “Very cute,” I replied.  Meanwhile, alarm bells were clanging in my head: it stopped moving! you’re going to kill it! it’s too dry! you’re petting it too hard!  


She wanted to know if we could keep it.  I told her we needed to find out more about how to care for them, and she reluctantly returned it to its log.  The kids had a great time, but there was no doubt that it was because they held the salamanders, petted them, and snuggled with them.  Looking at them would not have done the trick.  


Back home, I discovered that our new friends, northern redback salamanders, are the most common salamanders in our forests.  Salamanders are a highly successful, ancient species; the modern form differs little from the earliest amphibians of 400 million years ago.  And, if age and wisdom are linked in the wilderness, redbacks are wise indeed for they can live up to 30 years.


As for keeping one as a pet, websites blared warnings at me: salamanders taken from the wild usually die of stress, handling amphibians can give you salmonella, check the regulations in your state before taking any animal home.  As if that weren’t enough, the 2004 Global Amphibian Assessment found that nearly 50% of salamanders species worldwide are at high risk for extinction.  


Hands-on with nature is not quite as simple as it was for prior generations.  With more than 6 billion people on the planet, we do have to be more careful than we used to be and we do have to teach our kids to be more careful.  It’s much easier, as well as infinitely more pleasant, to tell our kids that nature is boundless and they can play with it at will.  It’s also easier to give them a simple message to stay on the trail and keep their hands off.  


However, I fear that neither of these over-simplified messages feeds the curiosity and fascination that allow them to care, while also giving them the respect and knowledge they need to be good caretakers.  


Where does that leave me in deciding if my child can keep a redback salamander as a pet in Brunswick?  This morning I called the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.  They promised to have someone call me back.  If the state biologist says it’s okay, I will let my daughter take home a northern redback salamander; if not, I will be able to explain why not.  I finally realized that it is knowledge that will let me navigate the line between hands-on and hands-off.  

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