Tag Archives: love

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.

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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.

Wild Paddy

8 Aug

Paddy, the patriarch of our seven guinea pigs, once lived in the woods with a cockerel. Their many wives roamed around the cottage garden in the Highlands where Bunty’s mother lives. Paddy and the cockerel spent part of the day with their wives, and then the two would cross the burn, climb the hill, pass under the fence or fly over it (depending), and return to their batchelor pad among the Scots pines.

The cockerel

Three pregnant wives

Paddy’s wives would nurture and wean Paddy’s pups in special enclosures where they would be safe from cats and owls. When they were old enough, Bunty’s mother would take them to Pets at Home and sell them. One summer, when Paddy’s wives had eleven pups on the go, Bunty’s mother decided to retire him from stud duties. Eleven was quite enough to be getting on with. Thus Paddy arrived at our home as a new member of our family. His arrival was unexpected and we had nowhere to put him, so we ensconced him  in a spare aquarium for his first few days of settling in. It was a far cry from his batchelor pad in the woods.

Not long after this, Pets at Home revised their policies such that they would only buy from a list of specific dealers – not casual hobbyists. Bunty’s mother was left with more guinea pigs than she could provide for. Paddy’s six sons came to live with us. We bought and customised a big hutch, with permanent access to our garden. Paddy had a new batchelor pad.

Paddy at bottom left

As they got older, the guinea pigs paired off, separating  into territorial areas of the garden. Paddy and his smallest son, Orkney, made their home on a patch of lawn edged by flowerbeds and a birch tree. Orkney spent all summer patrolling the edges of their territory against the other guinea pigs. Paddy had no inclination to follow suit: all his sons already accepted him as Top Pig.

In Wintertime, Paddy and Orkney shared the penthouse apartment in the guinea-pig tower block I had built for them all. The pigs like their tower well enough, but nothing beats the sight of them running and jumping unhindered through the grasses and Summer foliage. This year, the elderly Paddy began to take breaks from all the  running and jumping, to sit under a plank propped against the fence and watch the world go slowly by.

Paddy and Orkney in May (favourite plank in background)

Today dawned glorious and warm. As the sun was burning away the morning mist across the fields, Bunty fed Paddy some vegetable off-cuts. Paddy, feral creature that he is, scurried away to eat them in private. This afternoon, he was lying in the shade under his plank again, his boot-button eyes gazing into the buttercups. He had shuffled off his mortal coil, at the grand old age of five and a half.

I usually go to pieces when a pet dies, but this time it was different. He died quickly and quietly, in his old age, in his own territory – an expansive place full of grass to graze on and secret passageways that he had made among the bedding plants and beneath the tree. He died in freedom, with his favourite son close by. We buried him in his special place under the plank.

His last photo

Rest in peace, wild Paddy.