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Archive for January, 2015

The wild type

When I was eleven years old, I went hamster crazy.

At that age, I was a connoisseur of books on pets and wildlife, and I owned countless Barron’s books on pets. I had ones on all the common breeds of dog, including one on golden retrievers.  I discovered that the dog book were all written by Americans or by people living in America or writing for an American audience, and often, the books would just have enough filler about that particular breed, which would be followed by chapters that were essentially the same in every single book. Breed did not matter.

However, there were a few exceptions to this rule. Some books were really detailed and had fascinating narratives about the dogs they kept.  They were really good. The book on dachshunds by Leni Fiedelmeier was unbelievably good. The author actually told stories about her dogs as a way illustrating the best way to care for them.

I noticed very quickly that the book was a translation from German. The dogs all had German names, and most of the dachshunds in the photographs in the book were wire-haired, which is the least common variety in North America.

So it was a good book.

I noticed that the only books from that series that were any good were those that were originally written in German. German-speaking pet owners were much more willing to get personal in their books. They were much more willing to help you understand the animal and appreciate it for what it was.

And that’s what brought me to hamsters.

The book on hamsters was by Otto von Frisch. I had no idea who that was, but years later, I learned that Otto was the son of the famous ethologist Karl von Frisch. He was a respected director at the Brunswick Natural History Museum, but he was a master naturalist. His descriptions of hamster behavior and natural history captured my imagination as nothing had before.

I knew that I had to have a golden hamster.

And not just any golden hamster.

Throughout the translation, every time the author mentioned the hamsters that possessed the original coat coloration, they were always referred to as “the wild type.”

That term captured my imagination, and I knew that I wanted to have a male golden hamster of the wild type.

When I went to the pet store to buy my first hamster, all that was available was a female black-eyed cream. She was  a nasty biter, and though I gave her the name of Linda, we always called her the Black-eyed Bitch.

I was given an ancient Teddy bear hamster soon after I got my first one, and then I bought a cinnamon and banded one. The banded one was wild-type, but only on her front and back.

It turned out that the cinnamon hamster was pregnant, and she gave birth a litter of ten. Nine of the babies were banded wild-types, which told me that the wild type was dominant, as were the bands. But one of the little ones was a true wild type without any banding at all.

I kept him, and he was my first male hamster. I came to prefer the males to the females. The males, although smaller, were pluckier and more confident. They matured more muscled up and svelte. I came to notice their scent glands on their hips, which they would rake along the sides of their enclosures. On a wild type male, these glands would stain their fur a bright yellow, almost like epaulets on their tawny sable forms.

They were tame in that they tolerated my presence and handling. As solitary animals, I doubt they ever gave me a passing glance. They were other beings, prisoners in our civilization that somehow adapted to our plastic “labyrinth” enclosures, water bottles, and exercise wheels.

My eleven-year-old mind could not comprehend that these animals were derived from a single litter captured in Syria in 1930.  I could not grasp the concept of how inbred these animals were. They were all derived from single litter– indeed a single male and single female from that litter– and that they had somehow survived that bottleneck and were available at virtually every pet shop for $5.00.

I did not anthropomorphize them. No, I did worse than that.  The animals I knew all around me were dogs, and I began to project upon them the essence of canines. I even tried to train them a few tricks, which they never learned.

If I owned a hamster now, I think I would have greater appreciation for them as hamsters. I would think of them hanging out in some of the most ancient fields of wheat, occasionally stealing a bit of the grain store for themselves or perhaps falling prey to those first domestic cats.

When I reread Frisch’s book on hamsters, I am able to appreciate this creature. It lived unknown to science until 1839, when a British zoologist first described a specimen of mid-sized hamster from what is now Syria. But they are creatures of the cultivated field, and they knew about our kind for thousands of years before we came to know them.

And yet they remain so distant.

As prisoners in a foreign land should be.

 

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Ridge-running dogs don’t care about the weather.

They run the ridges as their avocation, their metier, their being.

The snow can blanket the forests and hills, but a good ridge-running dog will take to it as if her paws were meant to grace the snow and ice as they were the softest of rugs.

They live life for boisterous winter days when nothing is stirring but the wind, which casts the scents of forest denizens into her quivering nose.

These are the days for the gentle retriever to become a big more lupine in manner, questing over through the thickets where grouse and rabbits have sought refuge from the ever-peering eyes of the red-tails circling above.

It is a time of near limitless freedom, of the spontaneity of the chase, and of the sudden abandon of a running fit.

And it s time of a state of Zen to which we mere humans can only hope to aspire.

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And that, folks, is why I like to be out with an old ridge-running dog.

My neuroses and failings slip away into the cold air. I am free for the moment. I can finally be.

Thank you, dear ridge-runner, for bringing me back so many times to your world of wild thickets, fluttering grouse, squacking squirrels, and bounding rabbits.

It is but a taste of the world that both our species once knew when we walked that ancient taiga in search of game. Our time together in the wild is but a facsimile of that time and place, but it is one where you play the part so much better than I do.

All that I can say is that I’m humbled to have this time with you, and I know that I cannot show you enough appreciation for the joy you have brought me.

Just to be in the presence of a dog with a sagacious mind and a body well adapted to running up and down hills is to be taken on a journey outside of modern human experience.

It is an attempt to taste what it means to be natural again.

That mere taste is the greatest gift that the ridge-runner can bestow upon me, but it makes me yearn for more.

The taste is just that sweet.

 

 

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Now there’s a fine dog!

AKC champion! Must be quality!

Source.

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I just noticed that this sort of bulldog tends to possess really screwy loins. The loins actually point up toward the hips, which is so disgustingly freaky.

At a distance the dogs appear short-coupled, but when you really look at the muscles, the loins are pretty long. They just reach for the sky!

 

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Peter Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) on the run:

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From the Tod or Charlie or Reynard or Der Rotfuchs or the red fox (Vulpes vulpes fulva or Vulpes fulva).

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Seinfeld ethology

It was as if he studied under Vilmos Csanyi,

Source.

 

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What ruffed grouse need to thrive

Young forest habitat:

Source.

And no, the turkeys aren’t killing all the grouse!

I’ve never seen turkeys in the same part of the forest as ruffed grouse.

Ever.

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This fell-looking beast is a Romanian hamster (Mesocricetus newtoni).  It’s a close relative of the golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) that we know so well from the pet trade. They are in the same genus, and they have been hybridized in captivity.

This species is found in southern Romania and Bulgaria and is found in uncultivated grassland. The golden or Syrian hamster is found almost exclusively in wheatfields in northern Syria and southern Turkey. It has even been suggested that the golden hamster has evolved to live in cultivated fields in much the same way domestic animals have evolved to live with us.

Of course, we really don’t know.  Golden hamsters are quite uncommon in the wild, and they were when they were first described to science in the 1930’s.

It may be that there is something with modern agricultural practices that makes these hamsters incompatible with agriculture.

So here we have two species evolving to live very different lives. One is a creature of the cultivated field, while the other is that of the wild grassland.

Strangely, we know next to nothing about the golden hamster in the wild, and it happens to be located in area that I would not recommend anyone visiting right now– for any reason. You might get carried away and lose your head!

But the Romanian species can be studied now. There were attempts to make it a model laboratory animal like its Syrian cousin, but it proved harder to breed. We might be able to get some insights about wild hamster behavior from this species, even though it’s not at all the same animal as the familiar pet.

The golden hamster, by contrast, was very easy to breed in captivity, even though it’s an unusually inbred population. With the exception of some strains that were founded by wild-caught individuals in the 1990’s, all of the golden hamsters available at pet shops are derived from three survivors of a litter captured at Aleppo in 1930.

These animals appear to be super-domesticated, but as someone who used to breed hamsters, I can tell you they aren’t that far removed from wild animals. They readily escape their enclosures, and I never had one that didn’t bite me at least once.

Because of the geopolitical issues in the golden hamster’s range, it is very unlikely that we’re going to get new hamster blood or garner more knowledge about their behavior in the wild– at least in the near future.

There are so many questions, but maybe through the study of the European cousin, we might get some answers.

And some more questions to ask.

 

 

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Wet snow

Wet snow fell last night. It’s not the fun powdery snow that is fun to walk in, but it makes the trees prettier.

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Gray squirrel tracks:

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The problem with snow is that makes a dog’s scent marks less distinct, and they must be reapplied.

 

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