Animals

IN LOVING MEMORY OF LITA 2002-2018

It’s been two months since my world fell apart. Every time I’ve even thought about sitting down to write this my mind, and often even my body, has seized up. I suppose sitting in front of a blank page to write about the most horrible experience of your life is not exactly something most people would look forward to doing. But this was a special kind of despondent procrastination. Mixed in with the anguish was fear, even a terror, that I would somehow fail at this task. Just as the fear of failure stalks me in other aspects of my life, I was petrified by the idea of attempting something that could never be done well enough. In this case the lack of confidence stems not just from doubts about my abilities, but also from the sheer insurmountability of the mission.

To commemorate my beloved daughter is impossible. It is impossible in verbal, written, photographic, or any other form. It is impossible to convey the magic of her presence, the softness of her fur, or the intelligence of her gaze. It is impossible to say a damn thing about her that doesn’t pale in comparison to who she really was. But nevertheless I have to try. I cannot go on silently suffering when I have always turned to these blank pages to really feel. I need catharsis and the world needs a record of this miraculous creature.

I am aware that to a large portion of the human population, non-human deaths will never seem earth shattering. I acknowledge this fact and I do not expect those people to empathize or even sympathize with this outpouring of emotion. But, contrary to popular belief, telling someone their feelings are not valid does not actually invalidate them. My experience of grief has been sincere and excruciating. How I feel does not devalue human death, nor does it elevate every non-human death to tragedy status. Every loss is felt in its own way and with its own particular weight. And this loss has been heavy. So very heavy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel a love so pure, comforting, and uncomplicated as the love that emanated from Lita (or “The Floof” as we often called her). The greatest gift my parents ever gave me, the tiny grey cat entered my life just as I was falling off the cusp of childhood into adolescence. We bonded to one another with an intensity that can only come when two beings truly need each other. She was my first soul mate. Over the years Lita and I were nearly inseparable. In her kittenhood she would follow me around the house, meowing desperately should a door be closed between us. I wanted to take her everywhere with me, and brought pictures of her when I had to be away for more than a day or two.

Even in those bizarre and torrid teenage years, when many young people lose interest in their family pets, Lita remained a stable and reassuring force in my life. Her presence was invaluable in reminding me that I was not alone, and that I was needed. I will never forget the first time I began to struggle with depression and looked to her as a reason I had to be here. We were in this together. She would go on to serve as one of those reasons many more times in my life.

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Us, circa 2002 and 2014.

In our adult years we still remained tied to one another. Her absence was felt deeply in college, and I returned her to my life as soon as my post-college housing situation allowed it. One of the most exciting times of my adulthood was moving into my first studio apartment on my own with her in tow. I would come home from work and literally dance around the minute space with her in my arms, ecstatic in our simultaneous independence from outside forces but comfortable codependence on one another.

Even when that dream came crashing down asI discovered the apartment to be hopelessly infested with parasites, her reaction is one of the most memorable aspects. I recall sobbing on the phone with my boyfriend while she walked in circles around me meowing incessantly, clearly disturbed that I was so upset. Later, as I sat feeling defeated in my boyfriend’s condo, I held her close and thanked the cosmos that the little life-ruiners hadn’t gotten to her.

The next several years of my life would be marked by indecision, frustration, change, and more defeat. My boyfriend and I decided to make a cross-country move that didn’t stick, and Lita happily accompanied us on multiple nine-hour car trips there and back without complaint. She supported me through the confusion of feeling utterly directionless in life and isolated in an unfamiliar city. Her soft body curled against me each night continued to remind me that I would be ok.

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Lita waiting for me to come home to our DC apartment.

Lita’s health was also a large factor in our intense bond. Her biological brother died suddenly of kidney failure around the same time I moved her back in with me after college. Though his death was shocking and sad, it allowed me to move quickly to get Lita the treatment she undoubtedly needed ahead of the disease’s progression. The extra care I provided for Lita helped me feel even more needed, and I felt in some unexplainable way she knew I was doing a lot for her. Luckily, Lita’s demure nature made her a perfect candidate for the semi-invasive administration of subcutaneous fluids and oral medication, which kept her kidneys functioning for years. It wasn’t until she also developed symptoms of colon cancer that her health truly started to decline.

It would be disrespectful to her character to imply that Lita’s value and impact on my life was tied solely to her service as a de facto emotional support animal. She was so much more than just a comforting presence. She was a brilliant and unique force of life unlike any I ever expect to see again. She weighed all of nine pounds at her heaviest and yet she commanded the respect of all other animals in a room. Never interested in making quadrupedal friends, she generally preferred to boss other cats and dogs around and stick to charming only the humans in the room. But when it came to charming humans, she was a star. She always greeted guests in a matter of minutes from their arrival. She loved the company of her humans and lamented being alone. Lita’s charm came through both in her behavior and her appearance. “Your cat is a person!” proclaimed one of my animal-inclined friends upon first meeting her and looking down at her contented face as she sat swaddled in her arms. There was just something in her eyes that seemed to say, “I may be a cat, but I understand you.”

Lita’s death has been the most painful and destabilizing experience of my life. I’m aware this communicates an embarrassing level of privilege, but I can only say that I wish more people could assign their greatest woes to the loss of a loved one. I’m lucky not to have experienced trauma or neglect in my life, but that doesn’t mean I am impervious to emotional pain. In fact, it is probably part of the reason I feel this so deeply. Her physical decline and eventual loss pulled an existential rug from my feet; making me question whether anything is worth the pain we endure when we continue to open our eyes each morning.

As I held her lifeless body after her euthanasia and wailed into her fur, I thought things could never get any worse than that moment. But the weeks that followed didn’t offer much reprieve. I’ve struggled with hopelessness, desperation, dissociation, sleeplessness, nightmares, and lethargy in rapid succession. I have collapsed into a chair after work and not moved or done anything for hours at a time. I have googled suicide helplines and then deleted my browser history. I have considered trying to convince myself in the existence of an afterlife in order to cling to some shred of hope I might see her again. I have sobbed so deeply I’ve worried my body might collapse in on itself with one final heave.

I wish there was something else I could say. I wish there was some magic word I could use or perfect poem I could write that would instantly communicate the importance of the relationship I had with Lita. The knowledge that my memories of her will fade over time terrifies me. As I pass her ashes each day, sitting upon and altar with our favorite pictures and her favorite toys, I beg the universe to allow me to always remember her the way I do now, even if it continues to hurt this much.

If you or someone you know has lost someone, please remember that the species of that person does not matter. We are all made of the same complicated, bizarre, goopy stuff and our capacity to build relationships does not recognize the boundaries of phylogenetic trees. Love is love.

I love you so much Lita and I will never stop missing you. Thank you.

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Categories: About me, Animals | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loon Lacrimosa: North Manitou Island

Although seemingly irrelevant, the title of my blog actually has meaning to me beyond just an oh-so clever play on the common name for a Michigan bird. When I was about four years old, my parents purchased a small cottage in Mecosta, Michigan. Mecosta is a city most would consider within the catchall distinction of podunk nowhere. The “city” consisted of two bars, a gas station, and a combination laundromat and video rental store. Yes they were attached. Yes we used both of them. Anyway, the cottage was on a tiny but pristine body of water appropriately named “Pretty Lake”. My family had this cottage until they made the difficult decision to sell it during my freshman year of college, so about fourteen years. Thus the majority of my childhood summers were spent swimming, playing outside, getting bit by mosquitoes, and most importantly, pestering wildlife in every possible way. I am under the impression my career pathway (if you can even call it that at this point…maybe “life focus” would be a better choice) was hugely influenced by the amount of time I spent outdoors looking at, listening to, and wrangling wildlife during my youth. One of the more illusive creatures that could be found intermittently on Pretty Lake was the common loon (Gavia immer). The loon’s unmistakable, haunting call is as much as part of Michigan lore as drowsy mother bears and cryptozoological dog men. If you haven’t heard a loon’s call, take a second to Youtube that shit right now. I’ll wait here.

Perhaps this bizarre, eerie sound is the origin of the second dictionary definition for the word loon: a crazy or simple-minded person.

In addition to their unique vocalizations, loons are also just gorgeous birds. Breeding adults boast striking plumage of black and white and fiery red eyes. I wouldn’t go as far as to say loons are my spirit animal, especially since I’m not generally a bird person, but I’m a pretty big fan of these guys. Unfortunately loons, like many other threatened species, are dying in droves at the indirect hand of man. The mechanism is complicated, so much so that it requires an entire DNR poster in state parks and national lakeshores to explain it. The simplified version is this: humans introduced two non-native species to the Great Lakes and inland lakes of Michigan, zebra mussels and round gobies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders, meaning they eat by filtering tiny organisms out of the water they live in. Zebra mussels are so good at being zebra mussels that they have actually begun over-filtering Michigan waters, creating clarity levels that are not natural for these ecosystems. The clear waters allow for increased light penetration, which allows for increased algal growth. The algae grows at such a rate that it creates mats in which algae becomes smothered, dies, and begins to decompose within the mat. The rotting algae is a prime breeding ground for the Botulism toxin, a bacterium that causes a dangerous disease by the same name. This is where the second exotic, the round goby, comes in. Gobies swim among the algae beds, eating worms and other small organisms that have consumed the rotting algae, and they thus contract the Botulism bacteria. When loons and other shorebirds eat gobies containing the toxin, they contract Botulism and die.*

Recently I went on a short backpacking trip on North Manitou Island, one of the two “cubs” off the shore of the Sleeping Bear Dunes (if you don’t know the Native American tale about Sleeping Bear, it’s worth checking out). I had a fantastic time exploring the island and was met with breathtaking beauty at every turn. That is, until I encountered at least seven dead or dying loons in a row along the southwestern shore. I say dead or dying because two of the loons I encountered were still alive, suffering from what appeared to be paralysis and “limberneck”**. This was extremely difficult for me to see, especially since I knew there was nothing I could do to help the suffering birds. The enthrallment of backpacking in rustic, backwoods beauty became painful, lingering guilt for the damage our species is causing to the others we share this planet with. My boyfriend and I hiked back to our camp feeling sad, angry, and defeated. Even here, what felt like a million miles away from civilization, we could not escape blatant signs of ecological degradation. I was having flashbacks to Playa Llorona in Costa Rica.

Although this may seem like a downer of a post (probably because it is) I feel it’s important to talk about these experiences. If every person was forced to walk pass a suffering animal on a beautiful beach, knowing full well its suffering was caused by the actions of man, the world might look a little different. In the words of Gretchen Wyler, “we must not refuse to see with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies.” I want people, especially those who spend time enjoying natural resources, to understand our actions do cause real, observable consequences. It may seem a hopeless plight for loons and other species affected by invasives (such as ash trees, a species I work with every day). After all, the invaders are already here. What can we possibly do at this point? Yet it is always advisable to educate yourself. It amazes me how often people come upon our research in state and metro parks and have no knowledge of emerald ash borer or have even noticed ubiquitous death of ash trees across the state. These are people who have chosen to spend their day hiking, fishing, or otherwise enjoying a natural area, yet they are completely out of touch with forest health.

When you see something strange, like thousands of dead trees in an otherwise healthy stand or several dead birds along a pristine shore, ask yourself why and then go find the information. In my opinion, the most important thing we can do for our ecosystems at this point is just to give a damn. To have a sense of stewardship for the lands we inhabit. And not to turn a blind eye to the environment five days out of the week only to enjoy the fruits of nature, conversationalists and wildlife managers on the weekends. The Internet is a powerful tool and no one needs a degree in environmental science to be a steward. If you’re interested in learning more about the species I mentioned or how the average person can prevent or inhibit the spread of invasive species, check out the links I’ve shared below.

* http://www.annarbor.com/passions-pursuits/great-lakes-loons-dying-in-record-numbers-from-botulism-outbreak-spurred-by-ecological-disturbance/

** http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12150_12220-26493–,00.html

Learn about invasive species:

Zebra mussels: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/mollusks_zebra_mussel.php

Round goby: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/fish_round_goby.php

Emerald ash borer: http://na.fs.fed.us/fhp/eab/

Stopping invasives: http://www.fws.gov/invasives/what-you-can-do.html

On a brighter note, here are some nice shots from the trip:

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Categories: Animals, Environment, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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