An Animal Diary Archive

An Animal Diary, Animals, Momentary Affects

Grieving for Magpies

He is on a train to London when he reads, as part of his research, about four magpies who gather around a fifth who has been hit and killed by a car:

One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose at the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one they flew off. (Beckoff 2009: 82)

He looks out of the carriage window. His eyes are pointing down to the right, remembering something he has never experienced and has no memory of but is, nevertheless, connected to, and feels. His larynx and chest cavity collapse… a little. He can still breathe, but it forces out a long, slow sigh; a a sigh without a mouthing.

magpieThe cognitive appraisals and reappraisals that form one component loop of the affect-appraisal-emotion-action nexus have already begun. He rationalises what the feeling might be. A love and respect for the natural world, and a resignation that the world we have does not share his feelings? Yes. But he knows these are not the momentary affect, the inconsolable loss of sentience at the heart of the image. That downward look, that sigh without mouthing, is a phylogenetic sadness, a epochal loss.

It is not only an image. It happened. The author, Marc Bekoff, witnessed this moment while out on a cycle with a friend. But he, sitting on his train to London, doesn’t need to have witnessed this specific event. In his essay on roadkill, David Lulka draws on a range of statistics to emphasise that, if he hasn’t already seen roadkill in his travels, he will:

A conservative estimate indicated that 500,000 deer are killed annually in the United States (Romin and Bissonette 1996). Caletrio et al. (1996) gauged that 10 million vertebrates are killed annually in Spain. Ehman and Cogger (1985) calculated that 5.5 million reptiles and amphibians are killed each year in Australia. Lalo (1987) referenced a study which found that one million vertebrates are killed daily on roads in the United States. (Lulka 2008: 39)

He has, of course. That owl he hit driving the minibus between Birmingham and Plymouth on December 25th 1995, with Andy in the passenger seat. The impact. A low glass thump in the gut. He has not forgotten it, but he cannot recall the affect exactly… It may have been more Michael’s “mixture of excitement and sadness” (2004) than the ‘Unnamable’ exhaustion that Lulka finds at the heart of, for example, Beckett’s writing on experience and survival.

He reads that Beckoff writes “I like to think of our emotions as gifts from other animals” (82). Certainly, he agrees, of our animal ancestors. But also of the animals we co-habit and exist with (see Haraway 2008) and of ‘wild’ animals—all animals. How does he, then, go forward? How does he survive this magpie loss? This is what Beckoff, co-author of Wild Justice, an ethologist and researcher with many decades experiences, suggests to him:

 Daily, we silence sentience in innumerable animals in a wide variety of venues. However, we also know that we’re not the only sentient creatures with feelings, and with the knowledge that what hurts us hurts them comes the enormous responsibility and obligation to treat other beings with respect, appreciation, compassion, and love. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it’s their emotions that should inform our discussions and our actions on their behalf. (Beckoff 2009: 85)

He thinks of the birds he has fed over the winter. The crows and other Corvids that craw in the small park he runs through. The turkey he ate at Christmas not to inconvenience his host family. The blackbirds that dropped out of the sky in Arizona over New Year. But there is something numbing about his individual loss. Something obstructs the grief from outpouring as a “bestiary of affects” (Ngai 2005: 3). He thinks it is capitalism, or that he still owns a car, but he also knows it could be his poor sleep. It is, either way, an “obstructed agency… with a remarkable capacity for duration” (Ngai 2005: 3). Capitalism and insomnia both, then, and the pounding through air of the accelerating train.

Beckoff, M. (2009) ‘Animal emotions, wild justice and why they matter: Grieving magpies, a pissy baboon, and empathic elephants.’ In Emotion, Space and Society, 2(1), 82-85

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lulka, D. (2008) ‘The intimate hybridity of roadkill: A Beckettian view of dismay and persistance’. In Emotion, Space and Society, 1(1), 38-47

Michael, M. (2004) ‘Roadkill: between humans, non-human animals, and technologies’. In Society and Animals, 12, 277-298.

Ngai, S. (2005). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Image (c) Chuck Roberts

An Animal Diary, Animals, Running

Gulls coming home

seagullWatching the gulls come home is one of my favourite monents of the day. The Wearmouth Bridge, built in 1929 but with a history in different forms back to 1796, in its current shape a replica of the Tyne and Sydney Harbour bridges, all three of which I have walked over, is a good vantage point to watch the birds fly home. At sunset the sky above the bridge turns to orange and then pink, and the deep bottle green of the bridge iron turns a defiant purply-grey, and the gulls come in, singing on the wing, circling and spiralling on drafts of air we cannot see and barely notice as anything other than the cold on our cheeks. These are mainly common and herring gulls, flying at 500ft or higher, following as far as I can tell the flow of the Wear to the sea at its mouth.

I once saw a gull hanging off the St Peter’s basin wall just before the mouth of the Wear as it hits the North Sea. It was trapped in fishing line, tangled around its foot and around the iron railing, the barrier for us to avoid falling in. There were three teenagers fishing just a little way along, with the tools that could have helped to cut the bird free. Instead it hung off the side wall over the sea some thirty or forty feet below, strung up like shot game. There was always fishing line dumped along that walkway, from Sunderland out to Roker Beach. Yellow and pink and orange line, tangled messes of a frustrated day’s fishing. I used to put as much of it in the bins as I could.

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An Animal Diary, Running

Fallen Tree

fallen treeI run through Jesmond Dene a few times each week when running regularly. It is a long, thin and deep-delved park with the Ouseburn river running through it, a manicured end near Armstrong Bridge with a petting zoo and café, where it leads into Armstrong Park, a tree dominated, steep sided pathway of green, before the more open Heaton Park, with its Santana’s Italian restaurant in the old club house, and disused bowling green and open picnic spaces, packed full of students in summer and dog walkers all year round.

I begin the run by looping around the outside of Heaton Park and then dropping in at its southern gate and then run through in that direction, south to north. There is an access road between Heaton and Armstrong parks, and as I approached today I saw a police line blocking the way, where the top half of a tree had broken off and fallen. To the left, just inside Armstrong Park, stood the cracked tree stump from where the top half had fallen. Wind? Lightning? The broken stump, snapped like a lollypop stick, still sticky with sap, lay across the wall of Armstrong Park and into the road. It was already being dismantled. Many of its branches had been sawn off and lain in rows. The stricken tree itself was resting on the wall, perhaps five or six feet off the ground.

That’s when I should have gone round. But instead I crossed the blue line of plastic tape and went under the tree to carry on my run. That’s when I realised that the tree could still be ready to tip off the wall on which it had come to ret. It was still precariously balanced, perhaps and perhaps the branches I was hopping over and disturbing were not in fat detached, but still connected, and helping the tree balance. If it did come down on me it would rush me, no doubt. And for a moment the stupidity of what I was doing was apparent.

But then I was through, and running again, into Armstrong Park, then the Dene, following the cerise sunset, another clear night sky in the clear January, and forgetting the risk I’d taken to not divert my route. Perhaps there’s something about running that encourages risk in me – something I found out when I got stuck in the mud off Holy Island last summer, both legs up to the things and one arm, all sinking into a stretch of the mudflats they call ‘The Cages’ (the clue is in the name), a mile from any other human life and unable to reach my phone in my back pack.

I escaped from the mud. The tree didn’t fall on me. Yet both times this act of running had awakened in me, as it does for many, a desire to explore a world that is dangerous in ways that we insure ourselves against, with blue tape and pathways and an aversion to the animal feeling of simply not wanting to die; to live. And yet to test that feeling. I know that I needed something last summer, a shaking experience, something to waken me from lethargy; a near-death experience ought to do it. Consciously I was aware of a need for shaking up. Consciously I also was aware that my deeper brain systems wanted to seek out something dangerous. And so even though I didn’t intend to go through the mudflats, after I had, I was glad.

It is why, I think, in some ways, that through running and through experiences that bring to the fore this feeling in me—basics, all shared by we animals, we mammals—that I have to be able to empathise with the bodies of other animals and their needs. Other animals other than humans, but also humans.

Stepping under that tree as it lay fallen and with the threat of falling on me, I felt, for a moment, the same sense as what it must be like for a crow or a starling nesting in its branches in the wild wind. There’s something about the surprise of it that also threatens, and in that threat and surprise our physical animality and mortality is foregrounds. What a weak word. Lived. There is also, as Bessel van der Kolk makes clear in his book The Body Keeps the Score, the way we all, humans and nonhuman animals, keep ourselves from trauma is by mobilising against the threat. Face, fight, flight, run on, into the Dene, and in the dark half where most people do not wander, to run on, to leave the threat behind.

I did another 25 miles after being trapped in The Cages. All I lost was a sock. But what did I gain?

Image (cc) Deb Collins

An Animal Diary, Animals

The Pheasants of Fountains Abbey

pheasant1We stopped in at Fountains Abbey on the way to Guiseley and a friend’s 30th birthday. The Abbey is a stupendous Cistercian ruin that dates back to 1132 and was caught up in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Fountains Hall, close by, was still inhabited up to the 1940s by the Vyner family, who were in those echelons high enough to receive a stayover from the Queen Mother. It seems that the family line ended in tragedy, with both last children, Elizabeth and Charles, dying on active service in WW2, at the ages of 18 and 19. It stopped me for a moment, butting up against my working-class-rooted feelings about the upper classes. Every family can lose children; not every family will have a shrine to those lost. And yet what use is a shrine to any family in its loss? History is a pale shadow of immortality, or even a life long-lived.

The grounds are quite stunning and peppered in life: the general birding of winter—blue tits and robins, and many crows—but what surprised and then invigorated were the number of pheasant. We’d arrived about 3pm and so by the time we’d walked around the grounds it was getting dark. The moon rose above the horizon and into a see of transient pink, with a seashore blue of sky below it; the scene and the moon and sky through the trees felt otherworldly, as if we were in Narnia. And then the calling began. This calling, the long ‘kor-ork, -ok, -ok’ a sure-throated bark, not deep but somehow broad and well-set, not deep but not flat, almost like a thorough scrape of old stories off the tongue. What we haven’t realized was quite how many of them there were.

There were groups of hens together, and males fighting, approaching each other slowly, methodically, only to jump at each other without much bite, like bantamweights or the uncommitted in love. All around us on our moonstruck dusk back to the ruins of the abbey, uplit in yellow and orange and green spotlights, and with carols and organ music still playing on a stereo and echoing through the tallest tower, we saw and heard them and their calls, finding roosts in the trees for the night, silhouettes against the moonlight, these persecuted birds, slowly and harshly calling to each other, warning, we wondered, of foxes? I could not help but think of them as refugees, wild pheasant from some gamekeeper’s stock,  who understood this National Trust land was sanctuary for them from the shooters and flushers and retrievers, and how this once playground of great class privilege had become a place for visitors to enjoy the land, but more so, an abbey of wildness for those beautiful, rancorous, hunted birds.

pheasant2Image (cc) Digital Mio

An Animal Diary, Animals

The Whitley Bay Tree

We went out to Whitley Bay to buy an overlocker from the famous sewing centre, Britain’s largest retailer of sewing machines, it seems. Afterwards we would go for a walk on darkening beach. I pulled up on Station Road, jumping up onto the kerb in a tight spot between a Mazda and a Mercedes.

When we got out of the car we saw immediately above us starlings in murmuration. Not an especially spectacular group, relatively. There were perhaps a few hundred birds, but always, still, mesmerising enough to watch for a few seconds as the flock wheeled and twisted out of sight behind the three-storey houses. There used to be many more–starlings. Their population has declined by, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, by 66% since the 1970s, and is now redlisted as of high concern.

I see them now regularly competing in Newcastle city centre with the other ground feeders: the pigeons, crows, blackbirds, for crumbs and detritus. They have always been adaptable; always inhabited, in my experience, coastal habitats. The murmuration in Brighton, where the birds swarmed over the sea to come to rest under the eaves of the piers, the only structures large and open enough to nest their numbers, would draw crowds each night, on good nights at least.

starlingsImage (cc) Paul

Here in Whitley Bay the few hundred murmurated around and above an evergreen tree which, when we returned from our beach walk, and the purchase of an overlocker, a beautiful _and_ productive evening on this 2nd day of the year, lit by th almost full moon, was alive with starlings chattering to each other, sorting their pecking order and perches for the night, the wild, joyous convocation of birds. How else would you be after a hard day seeking food, some still hungry bellies, a bright moon to whistle at, and a home unflustered by all human deeds going on around it, the comings and goings of us not nearly so pretty or fast, our commerce not so pure, although making one’s own clothes is not a bad way to spend a day, nor is standing to listen to the starlings settle, if only for a moment, before we get into the car.

An Animal Diary, Animals

The Pigeon

pigeonMy running partner saw the pigeon first. It was flapping a broken wing to try and right itself, stuck inside an open front gate of a house on the road we were running along to the Saturday morning’s Park Run. We stopped to see what we could do. There was a large gash in the pigeon’s back. It’s feathers were an anaemic blue, the blue of a watercoloured sky, the blue of the shirt I am wearing now, a birthday present from a friend.

It was obviously a fledgling, having leapt and not flown. Unable to return to its nest. Injured somehow, it didn’t occur to me how. I bent down to pick it up, but it tried to get away. I didn’t want to damage it any more. It limped away, flapping one wing and dragging the other. I finally managed to get a grip of it, both hands around its body, thinking momentarily of the image of pigeons as ridden with germs, rats with wings as some people call them, and moved it to the back of the shrub that took up most of that house’s small front garden. I wanted to leave it in a place where it could die quietly. What else could we do?

Once I put it down it flapped and limped away again, thinking itself in danger from us. It moved into a corner, flapping into the wall, unable to get further away. Then it stopped. And we had to continue to where we were going.

I don’t know of many species of creature that are more vilified and treated with such contempt. Children chase and kick at them, and their parents laugh. But the rock dove was brought into human captivity around nine thousand years ago for food and sport, and the reason we have pigeons today was because some escaped from our captivity. They have adapted to our overcoming of the world. When we pigeon hole people we are referring to the holes made in rock caves, not where the doves originally lived but where they were kept for food. It is not a flattering comparison. We look at them as if they are vermin; dirty; scavengers; ruiners of the pristine; wanters of nothing more than the waste we produce for them. There is mass, collective projection going on here, as I look at the parents looking at their children chasing and kicking the pigeons. There is one that feeds halfway down Northumberland Street, and it has a club foot. Its talons are missing; instead there is a thick, gelatinous lump on the end of its leg. An infection? A defect? It is clearly painful to walk on that foot; the pigeon feels this pain. The children run after it and try to kick it.

Later, I went back to the injured bird. I couldn’t think of that pigeon there on its own suffering. The right thing to do was go back and help. I had a hire car for a few hours, so drove there. It was a quiet road, with only one entrance and exit, so no through traffic. When I returned, the pigeon was in the middle of the road. And behind it were two cats. Sitting and waiting. They had been chasing and playing. They were the source of the deep gash in the pigeon’s back. So I got out, took my sports towel I’d carried with me in my rucksack, and chased the cats away, and finally managed to capture the pigeon in the towel, wrapped it up tight, and got back in the car. Holding the pigeon tied up with one hand, I drove home—to the veterinarian’s at the end of my street. There was nothing the vet could do, said the nurse, other than probably euthanize the bird. I left the pigeon with them. For those last moments it was calm in my grasp. I held it, and stroked its beak. Let it know that it was okay. It was better than being eaten by cats.

Now I wished I had brought it home and nursed it back to health in my garage. But I did not know how to do something like this. My knowledge of caring for pigeons or injured animals is non-existent. Not everyone dislikes pigeons. Some people fancy after them, train and fly them in competitions. Recognise their abilities. Homing pigeons use sound to image their route, to find their way back. They have superb low-frequency hearing, and make acoustic maps from the sounds emanated from the earth and oceans; they get lost if there is interference in these sounds (such as when the Concord jet flew over during a pigeon race).

A question was asked of me: How far do we go to interfere with ‘nature’—that is, cats hunt birds. Pigeons are populous, wild animals; should we concern ourselves with saving one suffering individual? This last point an argument that pattrice jones unpicks and rejects in her book The Oxen at the Intersection; that if we think only of a species then we forget that animals are individuals, and each is worthy of not suffering, and has a desire and want to live. The first point—are we interfering with nature to save a pigeon from cats?—is something I am unclear upon, in regards to a fully worked out argument. But how can my instinct to save an animal from suffering not be a part of that ‘nature’? As natural as domesticated cats, anyway. Thinking of Jean-Christophe Bailly’s small book The Animal Side, I know which side of the question I fall upon, and it is the animal side. It is the side that feels to me like the low-humming sound of home.

Image (cc) Heather aka Molly