Susan Larson's Blog

March 24, 2015

Poverty Bites
“The Poor,” as Jesus remarked a good while ago, “you will always have with you.”
As promised, The Poor have not gone away. Throughout history the more fortunate have dealt with them charitably, mercifully, or brutally as the mood takes us. In our success-crazed American society, being poor is kind of OK if you rise out of it condition. If you insist on remaining stuck in poverty, there are names you get called.
Lazy, shiftless, amoral, irresponsible, moochers, ‘takers,’ The 47 Per Cent, people who expect Free Stuff, Welfare Cheats, Welfare Queens, those people who actually own washing machines and TVs, but who are eternally lining up to buy T-bone steaks and prawns with their food stamps, Drains on the Economy, producing nothing but kids out of wedlock, drinking their paychecks away, addicts, criminals, and trailer trash.

Well, I have my own definition of The Poor. The Poor are people who can’t get their teeth fixed.

As previously stated, I am one of the more fortunate, at least for the moment. I have however, inherited my ancestor’s crumbly soft teeth; I have had a bunch of dental abscesses, which start out as a mild temperature sensitivity and then develop into a roaring, throbbing agony that spreads to my whole head and then to my body. When this happens I call Dr. Levine’s office and groan into the phone, and the nice lady says to me “Can you come in right away?” So I do, and Dr. Levine performs a root canal and I go on my way rejoicing and praising God.
If you are The Poor neither the dentist nor the nice lady will see you right away. They will quote you a price for an extraction, then say they cannot pull a tooth while it is infected. The anesthetic doesn’t work if it’s infected. They give you a scrip for antibiotics.
So you score some Doxycycline, and maybe some weed to kill the pain, or you chew on a tea-bag, or take three Ibuprofen and a Tylenol in one go, or you turn to the universal analgesic of the poor, alcohol. If the antibiotics don’t kick in right away, you can also, as I have just learned, just rinse your mouth with vanilla extract. Or gasoline.
They only let you work part-time on the register of the food chain, so they won’t have to give you health insurance or other benefits. Your little house is underwater and the mortgage is too high, but you make your payments conscientiously, as you do all your other bills.
But last year your good hardworking live-in gentleman friend, who does not slap you around like your husband used to, broke both arms in an accident on a construction job, and you were strapped. That’s when you got involved with a sleazy loan company that charged you usurious rates of interest, compounded each week. It took some time before you realized you were only paying to service the interest, not the principal, and that the payments would never, ever end.
And now your entire mouth, face, jaw, throat and body are pounding in unspeakable agony; and either the infection or the antibiotics are making you nauseous, exhausted and unable to eat. You may have waited too long to seek help, so the infection might spread to, say, your brain, your jawbone or your bloodstream and heart, at which point you have bacterial endocarditis and you can go to the E.R.
So you go to work and you do your hours, and start looking around for some other way to make some cash, maybe cleaning houses, which you used to do when you were young. You can’t imagine doing that work feeling like you do. And of course, no benefits come with that job either.
And maybe some friend or the people from church, seeing how sick and terrified you look, may help you pay off your debt to the predatory loan company, and maybe somebody knows somebody who is looking for domestic help, and maybe the Doxy will get rid of the infection if it hasn’t gone too far, and you can scrounge the cash to get the tooth pulled.
But there are a dozen teeth, more or less, that you still have.
The Teeth– you will always have with you.
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Published on March 24, 2015 16:15 • 64 views • Tags: dental-hygeine, empathy, poor-people

December 1, 2014

Nine Kinds of Pain

I used to love dressage. Dressage is the French Word for ‘training,’ and its goal is, or was, physically and mentally conditioning a horse to the point where she can move with her native pride and grace while carrying a human burden on her back. This would be something like training a ballerina to dance Swan Lake wearing a bookbag. Not so easy. The ideal result of this training should be a centaur: human and horse becoming a harmonious lyrical whole.

My grade companion horses could do basic low-level dressage, which meant: smooth starts, stops, backing up, turning in circles or in place, switching easily from one gait to another, and carrying a rider in a balanced way without discomfort or pain. More than that I never asked, because I was not really good enough to ask.

I admired the great dressage horses and their wonderful riders of the past. I had a crush on the great Olympian horseRembrandt and his rider Nicole Uphoff, who made dressage look like a dance they were just making up for fun; so expressive of power, beauty and joy.

Lately when I see dressage clips on you-tube, it does not look like fun. One clip I happened upon showed a lady (I won’t name her) in full show kit on a beautiful dark bay horse, doing high level dressage airs in an arena. The animal’s head was tucked in almost to his neck, and his mouth was open in his efforts to evade the bit. His back was hollow and his hind feet, instead of working under his body to help carry the rider, were trailing out stiffly behind. Every time he was asked to turn, he lashed his tail angrily from side to side.

This animal was also extremely expressive. What he was expressing was pain.

And this is the video she put up of herself! Merrily floating along while her horse is desperately trying to tell her w that it damned well hurts!

If I had any hope of being heeded by this ‘expert’ dressage rider I would tell her get off, turn her horse out into a pasture to graze and play with his friends, and after a few months when the pain finally stops, she might want lend him to a twelve-year-old kid and tell them to go trail riding on a loose rein for a year or so. Maybe with no bit in the horse’s mouth.

What kind of narcissistic ego trip, or big-money trip, or prestige trip, is the competitive dressage world on, that they do not notice their own expensive and ‘pampered’ animals expressing pain? Are they so focused on extracting what they– or the show world– desire from their horses that they don’t see? Or care? Maybe PETA should have a look at this sadistic perversion of dressage. I used to like it. Now it makes me sick.
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Published on December 01, 2014 13:20 • 37 views • Tags: competitive-horse-events, dressage, egotism, horses, suffering

November 30, 2014

"Sam (a pastoral)", my pretty good 12yrs/up tale of a horse and his kid, is now in the Minuteman system in Massachusetts as an ebook for your favorite device!

If you are outside this region and want to read Sam's story, the book and can be requested from your library's Overdrive Catalog by doing the following:

1. Go to Overdrive Advanced Search. If Sam does not appear, click the "Find More" button.
2. The cover will appear with buttons on it, one of which says 'recommend this book." click it, and you will be prompted to sign in to recommend the ebook
3. Ask to be emailed when your Library acquires it.
4. Download, read and enjoy! Happy Trails!
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Published on November 30, 2014 09:25 • 28 views • Tags: animal-therapy, download, good-horse-book, libraries, overdrive

November 28, 2014

To all lovers of animals and humans: My book "Sam (a pastoral)" is now distributed as an e-book by Overdrive to your library. You can request "Sam" and read it any your tablet, phone or laptop.

"Sam" is the story of two misfits who fall in love and stick by each other even when the world turns against them.

For young (and older) adults. Positive themes include nature, farming, family, friendship, forgiveness and reconciliation. Potentially disturbing themes include bullying, parental abandonment, animal abuse and depression.

Not a bad read! Please share this around if you like!
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Published on November 28, 2014 11:00 • 27 views • Tags: bullying, e-book, forgiveness, kids, overdrive, revenge, sam-a-pastoral-horses

November 22, 2014

Tir Na NOg:
Musings while locked in a garage

Peaceful here. Dark. Dry. Feeling all that pressure slowly going down. Just hanging on the wall. No worries.

Where is she, I wonder. It’s been a while.

The last time we went out, September I think. Rolling hills, a few big-bitch steep ones. One stretch of fresh-laid asphalt still soft, it kicked up a lot of icky. We got around all the potholes and cornersand, the damn broken glass on the shoulder.

She and I hardly ever clash; no clunking gears, no crisscrosses, no dropped chains. We get along good.

She gave me a bath after that ride, and a wax job. She worked some lube into those parts I like. She shampooed the icky off my power train, using that cute gizmo that kind of tickles, then lubed and wiped it clean. Ahhh, feels so good after.

She hoisted me up on the wall, made sure I was settled.

“Tir Na NOg,” she said to me. “Tir Na Fuckin NOg.”

She hasn’t been back since.

It’s autumn now. Acorns. Slimy leaves and slick pine needles gathering at the corners. But still the best time to be going. Into the hill country, the apple country. It’s spinning fast and easy, no noise but whooshing wheels and, on the big bitches, she does some groaning and panting.

I help her be Tir Na NOg because I am really energy efficient and she is not. Though we are both made largely of carbon, my design is perfect and she has structural flaws. She is a much older model. But together we slip along like a silverfish.

Maybe her frame is cracked. Cables corroded. Or she just needs to be trued up. I’m good with that. I pass the winter here, remembering the fine summer we had, even though no autumn. Maybe we will get pumped up again for Spring. In Spring it will be Tir Na NOg again. Tir Na NOg, always.

Dang, I miss her.
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Published on November 22, 2014 06:58 • 39 views • Tags: aging-out, bicycling, mortality, old-age, outdoor-sports

September 27, 2014

My Secret Vice

I miss my dog. His name was Gandalf the Grey, and we loved each other. He went to Doggie Paradise in 1991. He was my last dog, because my increasingly severe allergic asthma does not permit me to have another one. This is very hard on me because I love the company of other mammals, except maybe shrews.

I have an incurable case of Biophilia: that itch to reach out and pat something furred, feathered or scaled. I have exchanged kisses with a friendly wolf, hung with a fruit bat, scratched a tapir’s itchy back, persuaded a wren to perch on my finger as I escorted him from my house; and– oh, enchanting childhood moment!– had my face washed by the tongue of an orphan fawn.

On the domestic side I have cuddled with the usual suspects: dogs horses, cows, goats, chickens, cats, and one fancy rat. The rat peed on me a lot. It’s what they do. But we stayed friends.

But right now it is dogs I miss. Or Dog. The bounding joy, the endless good nature of Dog; the eye contact that says “It’s you and me, 4 Evah, darling dear!”

Dogs have this wacky willingness to go along with whatever whim we might entertain. Walkies? Anytime! Pick up that thing and bring it to you? Sure! Bunch up those woolly critters and put them in that pen? You betcha! Guide you around obstacles? No prob! Let’s play!

When that terrible longing for Dog engulfs me, I go to one of the best Walkie spots in my town, where there are vast public hayfields and orchards, with a pretty river running alongside. I go and pretend to walk and birdwatch there, feeling vaguely creepy, like a pedophile lurking outside a kindergarten, because I am really there for the dogs. Yes. I hit on other people’s dogs.

Yesterday’s bag: two fox-colored Pomeranians, a lissome Doberman still in possession of his ears and tail, several wet Labs, and a standard poodle who barked an initial challenge, then sat on my feet leaning against me as I fondled his ears and chatted about dogs with his owner.

I watch dogs play with each other, or chase down their tattered Frisbees, in the sunny meadows. I ask their moms and dads if its OK to greet their pets. If yes, I scratch their, hips, ruffle their ears, and look into their bright eyes while they look right back into mine. And my heart is satisfied.

Thus do I deal with my Biophilia. No, “Biophilia” sounds to much like a disease; let’s use the Anglo Saxon word. It’s love. Thank you, dog parents, for loaning me a bit of the total goodness of Dog. When I put my hand on somebody else’s dog I am changed down to the toes; I feel their love, and that bond between creatures, and with the world. Dogs make me proud to be a mammal. “It’s you and me for this moment, darling dear.” As the nice English gentleman said, “Only connect.”
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Published on September 27, 2014 10:29 • 38 views • Tags: animals, connection, dogs, love

July 16, 2014

Two Ways of Being With Your Animal

So how would you like it if your boss at work tied you to your desk? If he made you wear a corset and poked you with a stick when he thought you were not working hard enough? If when you asked for a coffee break he swatted you with a rolled-up newspaper and said he’d tell damn well tell you when you could stop? What, on top of all this, if you didn’t get paid?

Would you be happy in your work? Does it matter if you are happy in your work? Plenty of systems in human history worked just fine when people were not happy in their work. Feudalism, Serfdom, Sweatshops, Slavery, all got the job done. Or else.

Aversive conditioning. Many of us trained our animals– and our children– like this. Many still do. Do this or I’ll make you do it; and if you resist or avoid, or develop an attitude, there will be escalating discomfort for you.

Positive conditioning. We say to our dog or horse, ‘If you want to do this thing I like, I’ll pay you.’ No coercion. No whips, spurs, choke collars, tie-downs, electric shocks, rolled-up newspapers, yelling, cursing or defaming your pet by calling her lazy, stubborn, or stupid.

Guess what? It works just as well as the other way. Actually, it works better, faster, provides is more fun for human and animal, and certainly less degrading and soul-killing for both.

I have just been watching a video of the positive-reinforcement training of a sseeing-eye horse! She is learning to guide the blind, in downtown Boston traffic no less! She is a mini, about two feet high; but she can lead her person around obstacles, up and down stairs, and into buildings; at the end of the day she can climb right into the back seat of a taxi. At the time of the filming she was ten months old. See for yourself:

These and many other training feats with horses and dogs etc., are the result of a revolutionary idea that has been getting more attention lately: the animal works for pay. It starts with food, but eventually can be a scratch, a pat, a word of praise, with the promise a treat coming later. The trainer clicks a cricket, which the horse soon realizes means ‘yes!’ and then offers up a goodie. The horse gets the connection in about two minutes. His brain starts whirring as he tries to figure out what he needs to do to get another click and treat.

Do not believe horses are dumb. They can figure out seventeen ways to get out of real or imagined unpleasantness in a second. Why waste their brains teaching them avoidance when you both could be doing something useful and fun?

Some folks are really hostile to the idea of animals working for rewards, calling it bribery and holding fast to the traditional aversive-conditioning pressure-and-release methods (don’t do that or you will be sorry; all the reward you get is that nice feeling when I stop poking or swatting you). But really, what’s the problem with working for rewards? You work for rewards, don’t you?

I had never heard of clicker training when I rode the back country on Old Sam. Although I think my communication with him was not entirely terrible, I feel like a total moron when I see little kids doing clicker training with their ponies; the learning curve is astonishing (for both species), and there is no frustration, no avoidance behaviors or acting out, and best of all, trust, respect, and playfulness. I so wish I could have done this with Sam!

This kind of training started with dolphins. Trainers at Sea World and other aquaria had to figure out how to get dolphins to pay attention to them, since you can’t halter a dolphin, or tie up a dolphin and you can’t beat on a dolphin and force her to knuckle under and do what you want. But. Give her a stake in the game, and your dolphin will get interested, learn things joyfully and invent ever-more-imaginative moves on her own to get bonus pay. As would you.

This strategy is used on movie animals, zoo animals, dogs, cows, chickens and horses and many other of God’s creatures. Lots of the trainers seem to be women, who perhaps are culturally less invested in the threat/dominance paradigm. But there are lots of men doing it too.

You can use this fine method on humans, too, rewarding desirable behavior and making work into play. A person in authority doesn’t have to ‘show ‘em who’s boss’ with bullying, as much as some perhaps fearful, perhaps psychopathic persons crave doing this. A good boss is, may I add, still the boss– and one must be the respected, trusted leader of your horse or dog or chicken– but you are the boss who hands out the paycheck, who gives his happy employees room to think, grow and increase in accomplishment and confidence. What’s not to love?
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Published on July 16, 2014 07:46 • 56 views • Tags: children, horses, positive-reinforcement, sam-a-pastoral-good-horse-book, training

June 2, 2014

Sam Goes Over the Mountain

I feel I must disclose to you that riding Sam was not always a bed of roses. When we were young and innocent, he had us at his mercy and he knew it, but he kept his wilder passions in check. As we became bolder riders though, Sam began to put in requests for more excitement in life. Our darling horse could be obnoxious when he decided that it was time for a serious run and we wanted to saunter along looking at the scenery, or we had just eaten a nice picnic lunch, or there was an unskilled rider behind us on Ms. Lynde.
Sam made these requests, or complaints, either by humming or by popping his lips, a sound we called “mupping.” “Mup!” clearly meant ‘Oh for Pete’s sake, can’t a little horse bust loose every now and then?’ On his very worst days he would mup and if that didn’t work, tense up and jig– a vice so unspeakably vicious that horses have been shot for doing it–we eventually figured out how to stop him jigging, but it was not an easy task.
But Old Sam was usually honorable, even at his crankiest. He never ran away with anybody. Well. Except for once. And I admit I was his accomplice.
I was in college, and was up at the farm for a summer visit, when our terrible transgression occurred. Summer people were moving into the area, and with them came a fad for competitive endurance riding. People invested in long-distance gear; they began feeding their horses high-protein diets and submitting both man and beast to a regimen of longer and longer rides.
Of course, with one thing and another, the summer people went back and forth to the city, or over to Saratoga or fishing or whatnot, so what they ended up with was a bunch of horses all ginned up on loads of grain and not quite enough exercise. But I thought endurance riding was great, and certainly better than the crazed gymkhanas I saw at the county fair, which looked to be mostly a jerk-and-spur competition.
So when a trio of summer people on very classy-looking quarter horses stopped in our dooryard one day and asked if I would like to ride up and over Argue Mountain, as far as I wanted, I accepted. Sam was on the shady side of 30, but he was still fit, and he loved that long ride on the mountain. So I caught him, brushed him down and tacked him up while the three waited.
Not exactly waited. They took it upon themselves to comment on Sam’s odd conformation and speculate how many yards he could limp before collapsing. The man in the group called out to me that his mount was ‘very much a stallion, and I had better keep my old nag far away if I didn’t want something bad to happen.’ Neither Sam nor I enjoyed mirth at our expense, and both of us work working ourselves into something of a sulk.
As we started down Lovers’ Lane I found that ‘keeping away’ from Mr. Stallion was not easy to do, because he was everywhere at once– skittering sidewise, rearing, backing up, whinnying and doing everything naughty that he knew how to do. He and the other two horses were in a lather and kind of spooky also; and their riders were doing a lot of cussing and yarning and booting to make them go forward, with no results that I could see.
But I said I was going to go, and go I did. I dodged around them when we got to the road, went to the front, and put Sam into his famous slow canter. The stud and his harem, after a few crowhops, settled down to lope behind us. Sam kept a steady cadence as we cantered for a mile or so up Hollow. I think he was showing off; setting an example of dignified pleasure horse behavior for the folks at his tail.
When we halted at the turnoff to the trail that wound up the back of Argue, the endurance horses were breathing hard. The man cussed at his stud horse; I talked goo-goo baby talk to Sam and gave his poll a big noisy kiss.
We started up the sloping trail at the walk, much to Sam’s disgust. He loved to charge up hills and stand on top of them, looking down his dromedary’s nose at the world below. But the endurance horses were in need of a break, so I kept him walking. He started humming and growling “Oh, come ON! We have a HILL here!” He pressed his case further with a long string of angry Mups.
As the grade got steeper, I could feel Sam rocking back on his hocks and making tentative cantering motions, but I nixed him again.
“Mup. Mup, mup, MUP,” he said. He fiddled with the bit, making his curb chain jingle.
“Mup, mup, mup, jingle jingle jingle, these weedy nags can do what they want, permission to swarm up this hill, mup Mup. MUP!”
“No, no, no,” I replied.
Onward and upward we walked, complete with sound effects. We halted again where a sweet little brook crossed the trail, to give the horses a drink and a breather. I slid off, loosened Sam’s girth and cooled his face and neck with my bandana dipped in the brook, as he meditatively rubbed his cheekbones on my shoulder.
“I’d whip him good on the head when he does that,” suggested the man.
How dare you, I thought. You make fun of my horse. My horse shows you all how it’s done. Now you suggest I hit him in the face? Why is it that the folks on the rankest horses feel compelled to offer you training tips? Now I know why they call these things Endurance Rides.
As the stallion jigged around and tried to step on his boots, the man added, “Got to show ‘em who’s Boss.”
I climbed back on Sam; the instant my rump hit the saddle I knew Sam’s heart and he knew mine. We waited for the others, who were hopping around yelling with one foot in the stirrup, to seat themselves, pick up their reins and firm their crash helmets down on their heads. Then I turned Sam over his haunches and took the rest of the hill at a dead run.
We reached the top in nothing flat, then pounded along the ridge of Argue Mountain at an angry extended trot. As my indignation began to cool a little I tried to slow Sam down so that the gasping herd could catch up and we could properly enjoy their sufferings. But the horse would no longer tolerate their company. The crazy pace had gone to his head and he was hell-bent on running them all right into the ground.
Without even the sportsmanlike Mup, Sam tensed his neck, lowered his head and for the first time ever, he bored; going into his terrible try-and-stop-me trot and then into a furious run. Across that ridge we bolted, crashing through creeks, jumping fallen logs, while the gasps and wheezes of the field sounded fainter and fainter behind us.
Pieces of skin flayed off my fingers, as in my last efforts to preserve a sense of decency, I tried to rate my runaway steed. I pleaded with him to stop or slow down. He paid no attention. He was out for blood. I could come along for the ride, or I could get off, if I wanted.
Finally we ran out of level ground as the trail began to slope downward off the ridge. Sam’s stampede was over. He proceeded down the other side of the mountain still grumbling, but at a decorous flat-footed walk, which was not easy for him with his straight shoulder, but he knew it would be easier on me. I let the reins slip to the buckle, and told him that if he wanted to run this show, he should feel entirely free.
As we descended into our hollow, I neck-reined Sam into a meadow, got off, loosened the girth and let him graze with his bit on, just to make my lapse from proper horsemanship complete. Together we strolled around, waiting for the appearance of the arriere garde.
We saw them as they came out of the woods. They were blowing, black with sweat, and bless me if they weren’t staggering. They turned into the meadow, the riders dismounted, and the three endurance horses lay down.
Sam had raised his head high and had been glaring fixedly at them ever since they appeared. Now he inhaled. Then he whinnied. That a noise! From deep within his mighty soul came that yell of triumph, pride, and utter contempt.
“Wieners! Dog Food! Who is the horse in this field? ME, that’s who! Ha, HA, HA!”
Nary a word nor a whicker in reply. I tightened the girth, mounted, lay my reins on my horse’s neck, and together we turned towards home. I dangled my feet out of the stirrups. I sang a little tune. The sun shone, the little clouds rolled by, and the birds sang sweetly in the trees. Life was very, very sweet.
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Published on June 02, 2014 14:50 • 45 views

April 1, 2014

A Culture of Dependency

Don’t get me wrong. I like birds. They sing very nicely and they are gifted natural athletes. There were a lot of them living in the woods near my house. I wanted to view them closer up, so I bought a feeder and stuck it on a pole outside my window.

Winter came, and with it the snow. Little songbirds flocked to my feeder, chowing down on seeds and suet, fluttering and chirping and acting cute. It was as if they were putting on a show just for me.

But then as the winter deepened and dragged on, I noticed something. These birds were just hanging around doing nothing! Nothing but eating, that is. Literally SNAPPING up bags and bags of the organic, gluten-free non-GMO seeds, that I bought for a hefty price at Wild Birds Unlimited! Even I don’t eat that well!

Only yesterday, I saw three or four mourning doves sitting–practically lying down– on the feeder tray, for HOURS, stoking up on my birdseed! They were so lazy they barely moved. They had taken up permanent residence and were hogging all the food!

I saw a small gang of juncos loitering in my foundation plantings, waiting to feed their habits if the doves ever moved off. But then a crew of starlings came in and cleaned out two suet feeders– dropping gobs of suet on the ground and not cleaning up after themselves– before they flew off, gibbering in their incomprehensible language. No doubt they were going to loot the feeders of other hardworking citizens.

I realized then that I had perpetuated a culture of dependency; these birds thought they were ENTITLED to food! They had infiltrated my patio, expecting more and more free stuff.. They had stopped fending for themselves, because my good intentions had turned them into lazy, and I hate to say it, shiftless, parasites. What next, would they try to come into the house? Sleep in my bed? Eat my food? It’s a slippery slope.

It was time for me to exercise some benign neglect, before these birds took over my life; so I took the feeder down. I am proud to say it worked. All the birds left my yard, without a single word of thanks for everything I had done for them. They left a lot of bird poop too.

What’s the lesson in all this? In this world there are seeders and there are feeders. Give a bird some sunflower seeds and you feed him for a day. Teach a bird to plant sunflower seeds and he can feed himself for life. I’m sure that’s what they are doing in the woods now. I can’t really tell; it’s awfully quiet out there.
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Published on April 01, 2014 17:52 • 37 views • Tags: birds, charity, freeloading, good-intentions, nature, satire, welfare

March 22, 2014

The Alligators are Singing

Alligators were in the news again this morning. The article in the paper said that some guy in Louisiana bought a plot of land next to an alligator-infested swamp, and the reptiles ate his beagle and spooked his wife. He has tabled plans to start a cattle operation on his acreage because of fears that hundreds of gators would flock to his land and eat steak morning noon and night.

I feel bad for the guy, besieged by large reptiles, bereft of his dog and deserted by his wife; but I must confess– I love alligators. Was there ever such a successful, fearsome and interesting critter?

Think about it. They were top predators when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and they still rule the swamp today. They will eat any creature they can get their mouths around, starting with fish and ending with deer. They are such masters of their environment that they alter and shape it to their liking. They sing. They dance. They guard their eggs and young with tenderness and ferocity. They even use tools. All this sophisticated behavior, using nothing but its tiny little reptile brain!

You think I am making this stuff up? Let me tell you about alligators. Let me help you to respect them, and to think of them as more than something to make pricey cowboy boots from.

Alligators are engineers. They make ponds. Called ‘gator holes, these dug-out pools serve as reservoirs during dry spells. They provide good environment for lots of plant and animal life, some of which the gator will eat.

Alligators dig tunnels beneath the banks of their ponds: cozy gator-caves into which they retreat if the weather is too cold, or just to meditate on life and wait for an unwary raccoon or turtle to happen by. I saw a gator munch up a turtle once. It sounded like cracking peanut brittle and it gave me the shivers.

Alligators sing. They don’t have any vocal chords, but they sing anyway, in the contra-bass register; producing tones so low that the water jumps and fizzes around them. They like the key of B flat. They stick their heads straight up out of the water and dance to their singing. They sing, like humans, for a number of urgent reasons, all of which must be paid attention to.

I first heard a gator song while kayaking the Turner River in the Everglades. It was performed by a large bull named One-Eyed Willie. We had paddled (quietly, respectfully) past him and Mrs. One-Eyed, as they basked in the morning sun. When we came back at noon, the missus was still basking, but Willie had disappeared.

As I was musing on his whereabouts, I heard his song– felt it really, right through the bottom of the boat. The sound seemed to come from up close, from far away, from the mouth of hell. Every hair on my body stood up as the song rattled my bones and set my heart pounding. Our tour guide suggested that we leave the area with all due speed…

Was Willie threatening us? Serenading his wife? Just practicing? I don’t know, and it would not have mattered. I was overcome by the sheer blind primal terror of it.

I vowed never to go kayaking with alligators again. But two years later I was back, and this time we saw gators dancing, almost before we launched the boats. Two bulls, bellowing and vibrating the water. Yes, we launched the boats– we paddled tactfully past, giving them both a wide berth.

Lady gators guard their eggs, then carry the babies to the water after they hatch. They encourage the babies to ride on the maternal back; which is the safest place for them to be. Don’t nobody mess with lady gators with babies on board; they will threaten or attack at this stage. We gave the moms a wide berth also. This is not so easy on a narrow, drought-shrunken little river, but we were strongly motivated to do so and we did.

Do alligators really use tools? Documented. Gators adorn their noses with twigs and branches, and, slipping just under the surface of the water, they wait for some unwary bird to perch on those twigs as its last act on earth.

They can also run pretty fast on land, in short sprints anyway. They get up on their tippy-toes and book it at about 11 mph. A gentleman in Loxahachie State Park told me this interesting fact. He was standing on the edge of a boat slip educating me and tossing marshmallows to a huge gator a few yards offshore. The reptile was loving on those sweets, swimming closer and closer to my knowledgeable friend… I left them to it.

Gator scales are rows of solar panels, absorbing the heat from the sun efficiently so the reptile’s metabolism can function. If the gator gets too hot, it opens its jaws for some evaporating action, revealing its shell-pink tongue and gums. Very pretty.

When a gator bites a large creature, it holds on tight and does the death-roll, spinning around and round until the chunk it had glommed onto twists off. They do just like you do when you wrestle a drumstick off the Thanksgiving turkey.

Alligators seldom bite humans. There are only few recorded cases of alligator attacks on people. If they do bite it is almost always a mistake, and I am sure they are sorry afterwards. Cocker spaniels bite humans much more frequently than alligators do, but cocker spaniels do not perform the death roll.

So, how about those alligators? Do you love them now? Whatever your feelings, you have to agree that they are awesome animals. Watch, marvel, enjoy, do not feed or annoy, and you’ll be fine with them.
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Published on March 22, 2014 11:13 • 54 views • Tags: alligators, everglades, humor, nature, reptiles