Insecticidal Maniacs?

2 Jun

I’m spending part of the summer dyeing dance flies at a nature reserve near Loch Lomond. Yesterday’s flies were electric blue. Today’s were day-glo orange. Tomorrow they will be lemon yellow. After dyeing them, I’m releasing them back into the wild. The high visibility will allow me to recognise them if I recapure any of them the following day.

On my first day, my supervisor Dr Luc drove me and my assistant to the site and showed us the areas we are to work in, and how to carry out the research project in a sufficiently scientific manner. We are working with gigantic fly nets, which we swing maniacally around our heads whenever our swarm convenes. Each fly captured in the net goes into an individual phial.

If you go down to the woods today

After half an hour of frantic net-swinging, it’s time to sex and dye the flies. Each one is checked for gender, dropped into a vial of dye, given a shake, and released. The vegetation is soon adorned with brightly-coloured dance flies. Some of them take to the air straight away, and look very pretty in the sunshine. Others prefer to clean themselves first.

Fly dyeing

The university’s Health and Safety rules say I must have an assistant for field research, because my ability to walk varies. Katydid is perfect for the job: she’s as batty about wildlife as I am, and strong as an ox. She carries all my stuff – lunch, water, spare jumpers, survival gear, seventy-odd vials, paintbrushes, wooden stakes, hammers, forceps, chocolate, jars of ethanol… you name it. Even though I had hoped the university would loan me a donkey to carry my stuff, I have to admit that Katydid makes a very decent pack-horse.

Malaise trapThe jars of ethanol are for the malaise traps. As well as painting flies, we have set up traps on the reserve to assay the insect life. I can’t say I am delighted about this part of the project, as it’s essentially mass murder – but the results can be fascinating and useful. Flying insects are trapped and preserved in jars of ethanol hanging from the tent-like structure in the photo above.

This is a personal test for me, to explore how far I am able to stretch my powerful moral boundary about harming animals. I need to know if I can make this a part of my future career in Zoology. We are carrying out our mass murdering in a protected area that’s not open to the public, and we have special dispensation to do it. The idea is to provide ecological organisations with information about the species present on this land, while at the same time gathering information about dance fly prevalence for the university. I am self-justifying my killing in terms of its assistance towards preserving biodiversity.

A prevalence of electric-blue dance flies

I was pleased to learn that Dr Luc also has moral feelings regarding invertebrate death and suffering. He and his colleagues display genuine affection for the creatures they study. I don’t find this attitude much in the human world: non-fluffy things with lots of legs are generally considered fair game for cruelty. My childhood role model was the conservationist Gerald Durrell, a self-styled “champion of small uglies”.

It helps me to know that the “small uglies” we trap won’t be flung in the bin when we’re done with them. Dr Luc is not wasteful about death, and he keeps all malaise-trapped insects for future entomological projects. Some of his students are going to spend hours at the microscope, dissecting the ovaries of pickled flies the size of pinheads. I think Gerald Durrell would approve.

How to Win Friends

1 May

Castration is a drastic measure, but for our six grumpy guinea pigs, the advantages have outweighed the risks. It all goes back to their adolescence, when they suddenly stopped being friends and started tearing chunks out of each other. Barry’s ear got bitten completely in two. This was a shock to us, because all the information we’d read declared that guinea pigs are social animals and MUST be kept together. Besides, other pet owners had told us dire tales of guinea pigs who had died of loneliness.

We took them en masse to Broadley’s vet hospital. There were seven of them then, as their dad was still alive. They were filthy from exploring the flowerbeds, and I hadn’t dared bathe them while they were hurting. The nurse on duty was Cath. I learned that day that Cath is passionate about guinea pigs (and rabbits), and has stacks of experience and knowledge about them. When we presented her with our sea of growling, dirt-blackened, bitten-up animals with patches of fur missing, she exchanged horrified glances with the vet. I felt sure they thought we had been systematically abusing them.

I described our set-up, and asked for advice. Cath’s first advice was, of course, to separate them. Then, to bloody well give them baths. She and the vet strongly advised against castration, as it doesn’t necessarily affect guinea pig behaviour, and general anaesthetic carries a higher death risk for little animals.

We duly fenced the garden off into territories and separated their tower block into apartments. The guinea pigs spent all summer patrolling the fences and rumbling at each other, and all winter growling at their ceilings and floors.

Winter tower

Horatio, awake before the others on Christmas Eve.

Then we had to neuter Colin, because he kept gumming up the rabbit’s eye. (Never mind how.) Afterwards, his territorial behaviour ceased, and all the other guinea pigs were nice to him. It was as though we had given him a social skeleton key. Was this a fluke?

When Twogoose and Horatio began furiously threatening each other, we decided to try neutering them too. We  felt confident that the skills and equipment at Broadley’s meant it wasn’t too much of a risk. Cath noticed them waiting there for the snip, and gave us a worried call to check that we were sure we wanted to go through with it. Our client money makes no difference to her: animal welfare is everything. We said we understood the risks – but we spent the rest of the day biting our nails, waiting for the call to say they were okay. They were. They have enjoyed each other’s company ever since.

How lovely it would be, we thought, if all the guinea pigs could live together again! Being all brothers, there was a chance they would all respond to neutering. We sent Clive, Barry and Orkney to be castrated too. Cath watched over them during their operation and recovery. She has taken a special interest in our guinea pigs since that first terrible day, and whenever she sees me, she asks, “how are the boys?” When I need guinea pig advice, she is the person I phone.

Here she is with her rabbit Ralph last month, just before she beat 11,000 contestants to become Veterinary Nurse of the Year. It is completely deserved.

Cath

[Photo from Broadleys Veterinary Hospital.]

The guinea pigs’ tender areas healed just in time for their annual exodus to live among the grass and daffodils. Here’s Orkney, lurking in his new bedroom. They usually lurk for three days before leaving their hutches to explore the garden.

Orkney lurking

This time, it took them just a few hours to step outside and start grazing. We have placed all the hutches together, and have been watching closely for signs of distress. We left most of the territory-fence up just in case, but  removed sections so they can explore the whole garden.

Summer setup

There was a brief squabble over who got to sleep in which hutch, but after that they settled in beautifully. Not one of them has got angry with the others – not even when there was a hailstorm to rattle them up. The change in them is remarkable! I never thought I’d see them daring to turn their backs on each other.

Long may the peace continue.

Among the daffs

Horatio, Clive, Orkney and Twogoose.

The Anarchist’s Rabbit

12 Apr

We decided to get Broccles a rabbit for his birthday. Being a rabbit himself, he’s a sociable beast, and we felt he could do with a companion to snuggle up with. The cats do not consider him snuggling material, owing to his tendency to enthusiastically mount them.

We trawled the rescue websites, and Bunty fell completely in love with this startling-looking thing, which he remarked was the prettiest rabbit he had ever seen.

“Dorita”. (Photo by fairlybelovedrabbitcare.org)

However, the decision wasn’t Bunty’s to make. I called Fairly Beloved Rabbit Care and asked the administrator, Bunny Green, if we could arrange to take Broccles over to choose himself a companion.

“Well – you see,” said Bunny, “we don’t have a rescue centre. All our rabbits are at foster homes.”

This struck me as a wonderfully civilized way to rescue animals – to place every single one into a caring home straight away. This foster network stretches across Scotland and currently cares for around 70 rabbits seeking Forever Homes. The logistics must be a gargantuan challenge.

Obviously, this meant that Broccles couldn’t choose his own rabbit. Bunny suggested we select a couple of rabbits from the website, and these would be brought to our home to see what Broccles made of them. Bunty and I reviewed ones that might be compatible with Broccles, till we had a shortlist of 4 – including the whacky-looking one. You see what’s coming. The only one ready for immediate rehoming was her. Bunty was over the moon.

Bunny Green brought her round on Wednesday. “Dorita” looked very small and afraid in the carrying case. She had been rescued along with 16 other rabbits from a place in Aberdeen. (Details here: http://forums.rabbitrehome.org.uk/showthread.php?353441-Rabbit-rescue-in-Aberdeen )

Bunny recommended that we put the rabbits together in a cage or small enclosure, so that the confines would mean they would have to get along. I suggested the front porch, as then we could sit with them and separate them if they got too fighty.

Bonding the rabbits. This lady changed her name to Bunny to raise money for Fairly Beloved’s fostering system.

Bonding the rabbits. This lady changed her name to Bunny to raise money for Fairly Beloved’s fostering system.

They didn’t get fighty at all. They veered away from each other, and Broccles, who is initially shy of all strangers, attempted to tunnel through me. After a few minutes, his ebullient nature resurfaced and he greeted Dorita. She nuzzled him back. They ate a cabbage leaf together, and all was well.

Half-blind date

We signed the adoption form, paid a donation, and the superlative Bunny Green made her goodbyes, leaving us alone with our house full of animals. Broccles immediately decided to consummate his new friendship, and mounted Dorita’s head. Twice.

Dorita took extreme umbrage and they had a big scuffle, then stared at each other in a sort of Mexican stand-off. Dorita grunted at Broccles, and stamped her foot in the International Rabbit Sign Language for “sod off”. Broccles considered this for several long moments, then stamped and grunted back. As though unsure what to do next, they carried on like this for about twenty minutes.

“Oink.” Thump.

“Oink.” Thump.

“Oink.” Thump.

Thump.

“Oink.”

Bunty suggested releasing them from the porch. I said we were supposed to keep them together in the small place until they had properly bonded. Bunty had been working his way through a cheerful bottle of Viogner, and he replied, “I am an anarchist. I don’t play by the rules.”

I opened the door-gate. Dorita immediately explored the whole house, and established the bedroom as her kingdom. Once she was out of sight, Broccles went back to his usual routine as though she had never appeared. At 4 a.m., he flolloped into the bedroom, as usual, to snooze on the carpet near me. In the shadows under the bed, he came face-to-face with the rabbit equivalent of Gene Simmons.

Gene Simmons

Gene Simmons

I was woken by wild under-bed scuffling that progressed to the living room. I got up to mediate. I found little Dorita standing haughtily in the middle of the floor, with Broccles backed against a book case, fluff sticking out all over his blind side. I sat and stroked them until they were calm and sleepy. Dorita returned to the bedroom and I went back to bed.

Broccles has now realised that having his blind side towards someone doesn’t make them physically disappear. His irrepressible friendliness and her irrepressible curiosity means neither can ignore the other for long, and early the second morning I was again woken by their skirmishes. I stroked them again, and they moved their faces very close together. Dorita began grooming Broccles, starting with a thorough gentle cleaning of his missing eye region, and moving to his cheek, his forehead, and the insides of his ears. He melted into the floor, looking blissed-out. Then she oinked and chased him around the room. I think she will make his life very interesting.

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