Category Archives: Musings

Stories and book, tv and movie reviews

Nim the Chimp

Amazon link for dvd

Project Nim is a film by James Marsh about Nim Chimpsky, the chimp who was raised from infancy as a human in order to explore the learning of language in non-human primates.  The film is based on the book by Elizabeth Hess, Nim Chimpsky:  The chimp who would be human.  CBC Radio’s Q interviewed Marsh about his film and Nim.

In an experiment started in 1973 by Columbia University psychologist Dr. Herbert S. Terrace, Nim grew up like a human child and learned American Sign Language.   As he matured, he became a real male chimp with all the aggression and wildness that goes along with that.  But he also liked going to the ice cream parlour for peach ice cream and sleeping in his bed.

After four years the experiment came to an end.  Nim was taken from his home to an animal research facility.  When it closed, he and the Nim Chimpsky, at home, drawing on chalkboardother chimps were sold to another lab.  In the labs, he lived in a cage.

Once Nim escaped.  He broke into a house where he climbed in a bed and went to sleep.  Just like Goldilocks.  Poor Nim.  Listening to that in the interview broke my heart.

from Nim Chimpsky to chimpanzee

Nim grew up in human surroundings.  He knew how to communicate through ASL.  Then all that ended, and none of his new “keepers” knew sign language.  What must he have thought?  Obviously, he knew something was wrong and he sought to rectify it.  Shows intelligence and rational thought, in my opinion.

And the people responsible for this:  what on earth were they thinking?  They had taught him to live like a human, so why would they think that he would ‘adapt’ to being treated differently?  Would it Chimp in a lab cage (Capital Chimpanzee Exhibit, AHS 2009)have been so hard to provide him, in any environment, with his own ‘room,’ with the bed and pillow and blankets that he was used to?  Hire someone who knew sign language?  Not understanding that, to me, shows less intelligence and rational thought than Nim demonstrated.

Some of his original caretakers continued to care, and publicized his plight.  Nim was rescued by Cleveland Amory’s Black Beauty Ranch.  He lived there until his death at 26 in 2000.  I don’t know if he had his own bed, but he had chimp companions that he liked and humans with whom he could sign.  I hope he also had all the peach ice cream he wanted.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, July 22, 2011

Who’s Kitten Who?

In the mood for a fluffy book, I wondered if Cynthia Baxter’s Who’s Kitten Who? might be a bit too fluffy based on the cover and title.  Still, give it a try.

Who's Kitten Who?
Click for Amazon link

Amateur sleuth Jessica Popper is a veterinarian who runs a mobile clinic on Long Island.  She lives with her fiancé and numerous animals.  She has a habit of running into murder and mystery.  In this book, it’s the murder of a community theatre writer. The backdrop is her home life and the visit of her future in-laws, whom she has not yet met, and their little dog Mitzi.

The actual mystery is good – some clues so you could feel like you were figuring it out but not enough to be too obvious.  The pets and her interaction with them are well drawn and entertaining.  Some LOL moments produced by her daily life with humans and animals. Fluffy? Yes.  A good read?  Yes.

The visit by the in-laws – good in that her fiancé’s mother is so god-awful that she gives you nightmares.  The tension between Jessica, her fiancé and his parents and Mitzi is very good.  It is realistic enough for any of us who have hideous memories of meeting “the fam” of a significant other.  It is over the top enough to make us laugh and feel relief that nothing we experienced was ever quite this bad.

Where it fails, in my opinion, is that Jessica tolerates this abuse by fiancé and his parents and actually still wants to be involved with this inconsiderate jackass.  I was relieved when I thought she had seen the light, smelled the coffee, woken up to her future with this dysfunctional pack of egotistical lunatics.  When loose ends are being tied up after the mystery was solved, I fully expected her to say “I never want to lay eyes on you again, go live with your deranged mother and her deranged dog and spare every other woman’s emotional wellbeing.”  What I read instead surprised me – indeed annoyed me.

Aside from that, I don’t like books where there’s no connection between title and content (excepting those with a series-based reason) and there isn’t here.  I don’t like mystery protagonists who suddenly act stupid for the sake of moving the plot along, and that happens here at least once in a major way.

I should, I suppose, read another of the ‘Reigning Cats and Dogs‘ series to get a better sense of Jessica and the pillock she’s engaged to.  Other than the points I mention, it’s a fun, well-written and engaging mystery with mostly likeable characters.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Sept. 8/11. Below are Amazon links to the first two Jessica Popper books. The right sidebar links are for Ms. Baxter’s second series featuring travel writer Mallory Marlowe.

 

Cat Ladies: The movie

Cat Ladies documentary Amazon link
Click to buy on Amazon

Finally saw the documentary Cat Ladies and it’s well worth watching.  What struck me was the ambivalence that all four women felt about what they were doing.  They love cats and enjoy looking after them and they don’t like seeing animals suffer. But they do not want as many cats as they have and/or they don’t want cats to define their entire lives.

The youngest of the four has the fewest cats, also a dog.  She has a number in her head of what separates a “cat person” from a “crazy cat lady”.  She gave it as 30, but then said she thought she was near the tipping point with 6.   Another lady loves her cats, but wishes she had Jenny holding cathuman friends too.  Another, a former bank employee, fell into cat rescue by accident and wants to stop.  Her house is full of cats and she works hard to get them adopted.  But she wants “more of a life than this.”  The fourth lady defines herself as a cat rescue, taking them in and finding homes for them.  She said she’s taken over 3,000 cats off the streets.  She loves what she does but said, “I’d be happy if they were all gone to other homes.”  Then added, “so I could bring home another hundred.”

That lady has problems with the people next door in her suburban neighbourhood.  They bought their house in winter and didn’t realize Sigi in cat room in her houseuntil spring that there was a house full of cats next door.  They keep a record of all cat-related annoyances.  I’d like to ban backyard pools, but I think my chances of success are less than these people’s with their cat problem.

Documentary discusses rescue vs. hoarding

Agent Tre Smith of the Toronto Humane Society gave his opinion on cat ladies.  “Animal rescuers” and “animal hoarders,” he says, are the same thing.  They want to relieve the suffering of animals, but can’t stop taking in just one more.  His point has validity, but I think simplifying it to that extent does a disservice to both animal rescue and the disorder of hoarding.

Tre Smith in THS cat roomTo say that animal rescue and animal hoarding are the same is like saying that all antique dealers are hoarders.  Some undoubtedly are, and more have the inclination.

But a successful antique dealer or collector can love the objects without endlessly filling houses and barns with them.  And a hoarder of objects can fill any amount of space with things and have no objective sense of their worth.  It’s not a dichotomy of dealer/hoarder.  It’s relative and on a scale of functional to dysfunctional.  And there are grey areas where it’s hard to know if someone is an enthusiast or has a disorder.

It’s the same for animal rescue and animal hoarding.   There are clear-cut cases, with someone like Tre at the functional end of the animal welfare scale.  The horror shows he sees in his job would be at the Diane holding catother, dysfunctional, end: the person with 300 dead and ill animals squashed into a one-bedroom house.  In between, there’s a lot of grey.

I liked all the women in this documentary and I respect what they are doing and their thoughts about it.  But then I’m a cat lady wannabe.  I’ll probably never really be one because one thing I know about it is that it’s a lot of hard work.

First posted on my St. Thomas Dog Blog Aug. 18/11. See my Cat People post for Ottawa’s ‘cat man’ and the Parliamentary cats. Also see 2 comments below.

 

Dog Gone

Eileen Key’s Dog Gone is about dogs disappearing from a boarding kennel.  Cleaning lady Belle wants to help her friend, the kennel owner, keep her business alive so she enters the world of dogs and dog shows.

Amazon link for Dog On by Eileen Key
click for Amazon

It’s a well-intentioned story about dog breeding and showing as well as dangers posed by a black market in purebred dogs.  But I felt important issues about pets and show dogs and breeding were muddled in their presentation.  Puppy mills, research labs and dogfighting fodder were mentioned as possible fates for stolen dogs.  The value of microchipping was stressed, as was the fact that chips are not like a GPS that track the dog.  You must have the dog in order to read the microchip.

My biggest problem was with the dog owners.  All the dogs were from champion bloodlines.  All were used for breeding and were beloved family pets.  The expected revenue from the central dog’s puppies was the means for financing the college education of the dog owner’s daughter.  Yick, I thought, are they concerned about losing their pet or an income source, one that they stress cost a huge amount to acquire?  So visions of backyard breeders recouping the cost of an overpriced puppy danced through my head.  The people who say “I paid $2000 for that dog, you know”,  “I can sell those puppies on Kijiji for $800 each, you know”.

Dog Shows

The owners enter their dogs in major AKC shows.  But they all have just one or two dogs who are family pets. However, nice as that thought is, I’m not sure it’s realistic. The amount of money involved in dog shows is made clear by Key, both the outlay required to participate at the top level and the rewards for having a champion.

Ok, there are people in the hobby or business of dog shows and breeding that do not have large kennels.  But they are pretty few and far between at the top championship levels.  Living and breathing dog shows is what most reputable breeders do, and Key’s dog-owners don’t do that.  So I wasn’t sure if I was being asked to care about pet owners who enjoy competing at dog shows or who see their purebred as a money-making machine.

Belle, our sleuthing heroine, is a self-confessed non-dog person.  Ms Key does not mention any dog in her acknowledgements, which seems de rigueur in doggy books. But she thanks kennel owners and vets. I think they gave her a good crash course in dog shows and pet care.

There is a strong Christian message in the book.  Rereading the publication details, I saw Barbour Publishing’s mission is to provide “inspirational products offering… biblical encouragement to the masses.”  It fits in easily with Belle’s characterization as a Christian and pastor’s wife.  It’s a good light read.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Sept. 16, 2012.

 

Lost and Found

Amazon link Lost and Found: dogs cats and heroes by Elizabeth Hess
Click for Amazon link

Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats, and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter is a wonderful book. Elizabeth Hess, a New York City arts journalist and author of Nim Chimpsky, writes about volunteering at the Columbia-Greene Animal Shelter near Hudson, New York. She and her family were among the “weekenders” who travel between this rural area and the city. When her daughter wanted a dog, they found one at the shelter and Elizabeth found a world that she hadn’t known before. She volunteered and kept notes.

I’ve had this book for a while, but put off reading it. I thought I would cry too much. I did, and got angry, but not as often as I feared. That’s due to Ms Hess’ writing. She is empathetic but analytic. She acts as a camera, showing us a whole picture from her perspective. She records events and puts them in a larger framework. She says what she thinks about it but lets us draw our own conclusions.

One story stood out for me. A “week-ender” came into the shelter one hot summer day, saying he’d found kittens and couldn’t keep them. Elizabeth knew him from gallery events in New York City, so they chatted about new shows and gossip in the artsy crowd. Finally he remembered the kittens and said they were in a box in his car! But the heat inside a sturdy box with only “a few pencil-sized holes” had done its job. The kittens were already nearly dead. “While Fitzgerald was chatting with me… the cats were in his car baking.” She doesn’t need to say that clearly this urbane man didn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain (or bring kittens out of the sun) or that she felt guilt for not asking the cats’ whereabouts. Both things are there, between the lines.

rescue dog Max before and after picturesThe Columbia-Greene Animal Shelter was a county operation, and therefore responsible for cruelty investigations as well as taking in owner-surrendered animals and strays. It adopted animals out and it euthanized.* It had animal quarters in the shelter and used foster homes and farms. Knowledgeable people committed to the well-being of animals staffed this shelter, fortunately.

Grim circumstances for heroes

Ms Hess talks about puppy mills and describes a raid on one. She talks about euthanasia of animals for no reason other than homes have not been found for them. She takes us into the euthanasia room and introduces us to the people who do the killing.

A story from a euthanasia technician: just after euthanizing a young dog sick with pneumonia, she saw the young couple who had surrendered her. She overheard them excitedly talking about going to the pet store and what kind of puppy they would buy. They asked how their other dog was. “She’s such a good little dog.  You’ll have no trouble placing her.” The Columbia-Greene Animal Shelter, poster for Animal Art at 2012dog’s illness was curable, but this couple evidently didn’t want to be bothered, and the shelter was full. The “good little dog” had been killed.

You become engaged in the stories and you think long and hard about the issues. This book is neither fluffy animal tales nor a diatribe.  It’s a valuable ethnography of our society’s treatment and attitudes towards pets and those who clean up the mess. And, yes, it’s also about heroes.

*At the time of the book’s writing. Their website home page states: “We do not euthanize animals for space constraints.” (From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Jan. 13/12)

 

Yorkie Doodle Dandy

Click to buy on Amazon

I don’t know much about WWII, and even less about the American campaign in the South Pacific. I learned a lot, and felt it, reading about a Yorkshire Terrier. William Wynne’s book about his dog Smoky takes you to the war with him. He explains it so clearly, the geography of battle, the military sorties and the day-to-day existence of the soldiers.

Military history was not his purpose in writing Yorkie Doodle Dandy: A memoir. It is about a dog he acquired in New Guinea while stationed there as an aerial photographer. One part of the story of how Smoky came to be with Bill really struck me. Another soldier found the tiny dog alongside a road, trying to get out of a foxhole. He didn’t like dogs, but he couldn’t leave this little scrap of a being to fend for herself. He brought her back to camp even though he wasn’t even remotely tempted to keep her. That, in an environment where death, killing and suffering are part of everyday life, is the act of a truly good man.

26th photo recon squadron logoWhen Smoky came to Bill soon after, he did basic obedience training with her for her own safety. Then, out of boredom and seeing how quickly she learned and enjoyed it, he began teaching her tricks. She became a star performer, providing entertainment for his mates and putting on shows for troops and in hospitals for wounded soldiers. While not an official war dog, she performed military duty, becoming a mascot of his squadron and given the honourary rank of corporal. She logged many hours of flight time, in reconnaissance and combat missions. Yorkshire Terrier Smoky in her specially made war coatHer most important military action was pulling telephone wire 60 feet through a drainage pipe. It took her minutes to do what would have taken men days.

Back in the USA

He brought her back to the States where she became a celebrity both as a war dog and performer. With Bill’s wife Margie, they spent time in Hollywood in the movie dog training business. He tells us about kennels and trainers known to all of us who love watching dogs in movies. They returned to Ohio when Bill was offered an aerial photography job in NACA (National Advisory Memorial to Smoky and war dogs in Cleveland 2005Committee on Aeronautics), later NASA. But performing was in Bill and Smoky’s blood. They entertained in circuses, hospital wards, stage shows and on their own live television show. She also was the first therapy dog on record due to her work with wounded soldiers and later in US hospitals.

Yorkshire Terriers were not common in the US at that time and, with her, Bill became involved in dog shows and the Yorkshire Terrier Club of America. Smoky lived to a good old age, happy and pampered and forever the star, also forever the war hero. There are monuments to her for her war work and her irrepressible spirit of fun.

The greatest tribute to her is this wonderful memoir about her life by a man Bill Wynne accepting PDSA bravery award for Smokywho deeply loved her. It also is a tribute to the soldiers who loved and protected their official and unofficial war dogs. He tells of the extraordinary measures they took to make sure their animals were part of ‘bringing the boys home.’ He didn’t intend the book as such, but it’s also a testament to him – a good man and a great veteran. Thank you, Mr. Wynne, for sharing your war and your dog with us.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, April 26, 2012

 

Dog On It: Review

Dog on It is the first in a mystery series by Spencer Quinn, aka Peter Abrahams.  The protagonists are Chet (dog) and Bernie (human).  Set in the US Southwest, the story is told by Chet.  He is a K-9 police school flunk-out and Bernie barely scrapes by as a private detective. They work as an investigation team, but neither of them has a superior or supernatural method of communication with the other.

Amazon for Dog On It by Spencer Quinn
Click to buy on Amazon

Chet understands human language, verbal and body, better than Bernie realizes.  But Chet can’t always convey what he knows to him.  Unlike Randolph, say, in the Bull Moose Dog Run series, he can’t read and doesn’t know how to use human language to communicate.  He does dog type communication – barking, wagging tail, bristling neck hair, growling.  Bernie can misinterpret these signals as Chet wanting a toy or Chet just barking for no good reason.  And Chet sometimes misses the significance of something in the human realm so doesn’t indicate its importance to Bernie.  I found myself thinking, “come on Chet, that’s important – bark!  Tell Bernie!”  And Chet would just think, “hmm, that kinda reminds me of something” and go back to licking himself.

The plot centres on a missing girl, so there are not a lot of doggy elements in the story itself.  You meet a neighbour dog and his situation makes you think.  And there’s a trip to an animal pound – also a lot to think about.

The jacket blurb says you don’t have to be a dog lover to enjoy the story. Being a dog lover, I really liked the insights into dog behaviour from a dog point of view. You get to know the people and dogs through Chet’s eyes. If you aren’t interested in dogs, I don’t know what it would be like reading a story from a dog’s perspective.

Chet and Bernie both can figure things out and are clever, but not overly so.  I don’t know what goes through a dog’s mind, but Chet’s thoughts seem pretty believable.  He comes across as a regular smart and galumphing type dog. So does Bernie. The book is a good who-dun-it, aside from the pleasure of reading something from a likeable dog’s point of view.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, June 28/11

The Tao of Horses

“If you knew a horse, you could depend on him and if he was going to do something bad, you could depend on him to do that too. I always understood horses better than I did people.“

This opinion on the staightforwardness of horses is from retired US Captain Thomas Stewart. His story is in The Tao Of Horses: Exploring how horses guide us on our spiritual path by Elizabeth Kaye McCall. At the end of WWII, Capt. Stewart and Dr. Horse stories Lipizzaner 2002 London ONRudolph Lessing, a German army captain and veterinarian, got 200 Lipizzaner stallions and broodmares out of Czechoslovakia before it was given to Russia in the Allied division of territory.

The Lipizzaner story is in the chapter entitled ‘Peace – The unequivocal ambassador’. This book has many such horse stories – individual people and horse breeds that are particular noteworthy in the equestrian world. It’s a small book and it covers a lot of ground. Each chapter focuses on a few people and the breed of horse with which they work. You get the story of the breed, including individual horses, people and their philosophical musings on what horses and their particular branch of equestrian activity gives them mentally and physically. The author adds her own thoughts in short sections at the end of each chapter. She includes a physical or mental exercise as well as travel tips and internet search suggestions.

I stay well clear of any book with ‘Tao’ in its title, too New Age self-helpish for me. But when I found a copy in a thrift store – why not? I’m very glad I bought it.

Horse Stories

Before I read it, I did not know the singer Wayne Newton is a well-respected breeder of Arabian horses. I did not know that the drummer of the 1970s band Three Dog Night, Michael McMeel, was inspired by the movie City Slickers to set up an equestrian programme for Los Angeles “at risk” kids. The book tells the horse stories of people you have heard of. It also tells about those you probably don’t know of but are happy to learn about.

Tao of Horses
Click for Amazon link

This book is what its title says, a look at the way of horses.  It discusses them and their relationship with humans in all ways – practical, emotional and psychological. You get an easy to understand overview of breeds and equestrian arts. As well, there’s a lot to think about in terms of how horses and humans connect at the heart. Ms. McCall shows the art of dressage, for example, and also explains some technical points of it. You also read about a family who have spent their whole lives in pursuit of this dance between human and horse. You are moved to think about that expression of balance and fluidity in terms of your own life, with and without a horse to share it.

It is a self-help book but it doesn’t outline steps to fix your life. It gives you something better. Food for thought about yourself and your emotional interior and about creatures – human and equine – outside yourself. It also teaches you about horses and equestrian disciplines from reining to racing. A lovely book, and well worth its full price for horse- and non-horse people alike.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Nov. 10, 2011

 

Iditarod Murder: Review

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, June 13/11.  The 2015 Iditarod starts Sat. March 7th.

Amazon link for Iditarod murder novel by Sue Henry
Click image or text for Amazon

A 1991 mystery novel by Sue HenryMurder on the Iditarod Trail is good.  Several murders: at first I thought she just wanted to use all the ways she’d thought of for murder in a dogteam race.  But actually all the murders are necessary for the plot line.  They’re inventive and the murder mystery part of the book is good – right to the end.

But what’s just as good is you, the reader, are going along with the teams every hard mile of the race.  You get put inside it, why and how people and their dogs do this sometimes year after year.  You also get some of the history and geography of Alaska – of the race itself, the gold-rush, the land and the peoples both aboriginal and white settlers.

She takes on political controversies that have been part of the Itidarod for the past few decades.  Many male racers opposed women entering the competition and Henry discusses this through the plot line and a female musher who is a main character.*  She also discusses the animal welfare activists who have sought to shut down the race.  She photo of sled dog in snow by Magnus-Manskeaddresses the issue of the dogs’ health and safety throughout as background of the actual running and the protestors as possible murder suspects.

Henry has lived in Alaska for many years and clearly is a proponent and admirer of the Iditarod – the mushers and dogs, as well as the terrain and the history.  There’s nothing ‘preachy’ in her inclusion of the politics of the race; it’s presented as a natural part of her story.

This book is the first in what became a series of novels featuring the two main characters in it.  I look forward to reading the rest of her books.  They’ll be the closest I ever come to running the Iditarod myself.

* The statements made by men in the book about why women shouldn’t be running made me think of a 1980s tongue-in-cheek state ‘slogan’ I came across:  “Alaska, where women win the Iditarod and men mush Poodles”.  During that decade, women won several times and teams of Standard Poodles ran it respectably.

 

The Wrong Dog

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Aug. 21st, 2010

In the library last week, I found a new-to-me dog mystery writer.  Carol Lea Benjamin writes a series featuring The Wrong Dog Amazon link - Dashiellprivate detective Rachel Alexander and her intrepid Pit Bull partner Dashiell (as in Hammett), Dash for short.  I have so far only read The Wrong Dog which is about cloning of dogs.  The dog who is cloned is a Bull Terrier, a “seizure alert” dog for her person who has severe epilepsy.

It’s a good story with quite a bit of information about dogs’ ability to sense an impending seizure and how they respond in such an event.  It also talks about the issue of cloning, not so much technical information, but more ethical.  What would be the ramifications if we could clone our canine best friend?  Would personality and emotional response be identical or just the physical characteristics?   Can inherent talents like sensing seizures be passed on?  These questions are wrapped in a story of good guys and bad guys, money and loneliness, all set in NYC’s Greenwich Village.

Dashiell doesn’t do the intellectual work of detecting, but he’s good at finding clues and he’s great protection for Rachel.  I didn’t get much of a sense of what Rachel looks like. That’s because in this book at least, Benjamin doesn’t say much about her appearance.  But also, when seeing the name, I kept thinking of the filly who won the 2009 Kentucky Oaks and Preakness.  I’m quite sure the two Rachels don’t look alike.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a dog trainer with several fiction and non-fiction dog books to her credit, and a former detective.  Next time I’m at the library, I’ll be getting out another Rachel and Dash mystery.