Sunday, March 17, 2019


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 20, 2019] ©2019

It’s ironic that only two weeks ago I wrote a column that included the saga of the death of a friend’s pet white rat, Snowball.  When I wrote about the loss of our beloved bull dog, Winston, in 2016 there was an outpouring of support from readers who had been equally flattened by the loss of a fur family member, canine or feline. 

One reader lamented, however, that she felt that no one seemed to understand her grief at the passing of her iguana, Ziggy Marley.  And certainly my friend was not being overwhelmed with the condolence cards over Snowball.  Some types of pets simply resonate more than others. We’ve noticed this with our birds as well.

Our avian saga started when my older son, Rory, then nine, talked me into a cockatiel. It was such a simple request. Sure, I said blithely, you can have a cockatiel. Who knew what far reaching ramifications that simple line would have. What I didn’t know I was really saying was, “Sure. I’d be glad to clean bird cages for the next TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS.”

A few years back when I wrote about our birds, I cautioned that one should never let kids get a pet with a longer life expectancy than yours.

Rory is now 41 and married to a cat person in Santa Cruz.  While cockatiels can live to 30 years (and ours seemed destined to), it’s the children and grandchildren of the originals who hung in there with us over the years. We also became an inadvertent avian social service agency for parakeets as neighborhood kids bought them as pets then quickly became bored with them. It was not unheard of to find an abandoned cage with a bird – no note – on our front doorstep.

With a burgeoning bird population, we had a 4’ x 4’ by 6’ high cage built into our protected back porch and moved the birds outside one summer so they had time to acclimate to the weather. The nice thing about an outdoor aviary is that it didn’t have to be cleaned daily. Still, they could cover a cage floor pretty fast. 

When he retired, Olof took over cleaning the aviary on Sunday mornings.  Even he conceded that after 27 years of cleaning bird cages, I probably deserved a break.

Our young grandkids love the aviary and our granddaughter especially loves naming the birds when new ones show up. By 2015, all the cockatiels had passed away and we were down to two pairs of parakeets, Banana and Green Bean (who were, not surprisingly, yellow and green respectively), and two blue ones, Elizabeth and Oreo.  We never quite got what inspired our granddaughter to name a blue bird for a brown and white cookie, but hey, her choice.

As with all our birds over the years, we are hugely fond of the little guys. They’re truly family. We enjoy listening to their morning chirp-a-thon. They recognize our voices, and even our footsteps and car engines. They flock to the front of the cage in the morning when Olof comes out to uncover them and feed them. And we have mourned the loss of every one of them.

Grieving a beloved pet more than some human family members is not unusual, whether the pet is a white rat, an iguana, or a bird. Frankly, I have several relatives I would have happily traded in for Winston.

This past week, Olof found himself having to report some very sad news to our granddaughter:

Dear Avery -

I'm saddened to report that Oreo, the beautiful blue parakeet in our cage, has gone from this world, flying over the rainbow to wherever birds go.  This morning, I found the blue feather shirt, beak, and claws he left behind still and quiet at the bottom of the cage.

Oreo was the oldest bird in the aviary.  He came to us at the same time as Elizabeth and they were a pair.  When she died many months ago, poor old Oreo was set adrift.  Green Bean and Banana tolerated him, but he was always a little outside their orbit.

This time of year is the hardest for our birds.  It's cold in the cage and it's colder yet for an old bird forced to huddle by himself on a branch.  He had begun to look a little scruffy, a sure sign of a bird wearing down.  Every morning, when I uncovered the cage, he would hop to the front to find a little piece of sun to warm himself in.  Last night it was just a little too long between cold dark and warm(er) morning.

Today I imagined him in a warm, green jungle, flush with food, but devoid of cats and hawks, strutting around like his old self, squawking defiantly at everyone within range.  I hope you will too.


Olof cleans the aviary on Sunday mornings
while Lily supervises

Monday, March 11, 2019

Social Media For Dogs

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 13, 2019] ©2019

When we take Lily out for a walk, there are certain places she sniffs and others where she sniffs but also pees.  It took me a while, but I’ve now broken the code: this is social media for dogs. 

Each time she stops and sniffs, she’s reading the messages left by her canine counterparts.  And sometimes she feels compelled to, er, post a reply. 

Should we be honored that every dog who walks by pees in front of our gate?  Does this mean Lily has 400 SnoutFace friends? 

It’s really gotten to be a problem.  We are serious dog people but stepping over a lake of dog effluvia every morning can be dismaying.  It is ever more dismaying when we actually step IN it.  So a non-toxic but unpleasant (to dogs) spray was recommended to us to discourage this practice. 

Now that I understand the whole social media aspect of it, I’m feeling bad about using that spray.  Is this like unfriending her canine pals?  If she could speak, would she be saying, “Mom! Dad! You’re, like, ruining my life!  Now Woofgang Etzler and Fluffy Feinbaum ignore me on the bike path! And who knows what they’re posting about me on the agapanthus in front of the Hinkelmans?

That dogs have social circles is no secret.  I live in a very dog friendly neighborhood.  I often see the same groups of people congregating around 5 p.m. chatting with each other as their dogs socialize as well, happily sniffing each other’s tushies. “Oh, Puddles! It’s you! I didn’t recognize your scent at first!  You must have just been to the groomer!  Or the vet! Don’t you just hate that anal gland treatment? Changes your scent for a week!”

Alas, Lily is not usually part of these charming gatherings.  Lily is leash aggressive.  Which is to say that as soon as you exit the yard with her on a leash, she comes Cujo in the presence of other dogs.  Yet as soon as another dog is in our yard and there’s no leashes, she and the visitor are new best friends.  It is so odd for a dog who is otherwise calm and sociable.  When we have guests, she makes the rounds of everyone’s laps. 

Occasionally she seems really interested in interacting with another dog while on a walk, and pulls on her leash toward them, her tail going at 100 wags a minute. If the other owner agrees, I’ll let Lily cautiously approach the other dog who is usually one of those mild-mannered animals who must do the doggy version of transcendental meditation; it is quintessentially calm.  Those interactions always go well.  Everybody sniffs then you can see the other dog going, “Oh, it’s you, Lily.  So about that nasty stuff your parents spray in front of your gate…”

I am truly fascinated not only with canine communication skills with each other but their skills with humans. Dogs truly excel at conveying their emotions. Would that people were so easy to read.  A friend sent a photo of her dog Ingy who had just had ACL surgery. The dog was plotzed on the sofa, one leg thoroughly bandaged, and definitely benched for the foreseeable future. That face! Who needs words?

Indeed, anyone who has ever had a dog as a family member is impressed with how truly evolved dogs are.  Then they go and roll in their own poop and, well, you just have to deduct a few points.

Lily, like all dogs, has her own repertoire of faces.  The ears-folded-back plaintive look that says “You’re really going to eat that burger in front of me?”  The ears-straight-up full-attention look when our new washing machine is running (we’re both terrified of it).  The cartwheels she does when we walk in the door. She’s never lost her shelter dog abandonment issues. If we go out for a half hour, you’d think we’d abandoned her for weeks.  She leaps into my lap and slathers my face in a frenzied doggie saliva facial. “You’re back! I thought you were gone forever! Never do that to me again!” 

When Olof was in the hospital last year, she pooped on the floor until he came back. How much clearer can you get?

And let’s not forget “dogar.” A dog can hear the sound of the fridge opening and the crinkle of a package of cheddar cheese no matter where she is in the house or how loud the TV is.

Well, now that I understand the whole social media aspect of sniffing and selectively peeing, I’m probably going to cut back on that spray stuff by the gate.  Maybe give Lily a little time to build up her friend base again. See if Atilla and Sparkles and Hairy Pawter and Orville Redenbarker will start leaving her messages again.  I just hope she appreciates our sacrifice.

 Really hard to imagine this dog as Cujo

Neighborhood dogs love to post messages for Lily
around our front gate

Monday, March 4, 2019

Thwarting Bruce

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 6, 2019] ©2019

The hysterical call came in at 9:30 one night.  A care giver at the home of a disabled friend was on the other end, so distressed that I could only assume that her client had shuffled off this mortal coil.  But it was worse than that.

There was a rat in the kitchen.

Now let me just say that I can provide no corroborating evidence that this creature was, in fact, a rat and not, say, a field mouse. In every description of the sum-total two (alleged) sightings of this animal, his dimensions have increased, currently assuming the size of a small dog.

Hoping to defuse the situation and to allow us to discuss the situation without using the inflammatory “r” word, I named him Bruce.

Now, I know that most people are not terribly fond of rodents. The exception would be my dear friend Carol who had a beloved white rat named Snowball.  When Carol went through a horrible divorce, Snowball would lick the tears off her face at night as she sobbed into her pillow. One can never underestimate the power of pets to sustain people in times of sorrow.

One night last year, I opened my door to find Carol at my doorstep in abject distress. Snowball had been diagnosed with breast cancer. We’ll leave aside the obvious questions as to who treats pet rats (I have enough trouble finding vets for our birds) and how this diagnosis might have been made.  Routine mammogram? Self-exam?

As anyone with a pet knows, there is virtually no medical treatment for a human that cannot now be done for an animal.  So the rodent vet had offered a comprehensive treatment plan. It wouldn’t be cheap. But none of that matters to those of us who are faced with losing a beloved family pet.

Bruce, of course, was not a pet.  More in the “scourge” category.  My personal theory was that Bruce had been looking for a warm dry place to come in out of the week’s torrential rains and had been pleased to find a ready-made fruit bowl banquet on the kitchen counter.

Alas, it looked like the care givers might actually quit over Bruce. They had barricaded the kitchen closed from both sides, stuffing towels under the doors, refusing to enter, and were ordering take-out.

My first suggestion, of course, was to remove the Bruce Buffet from the counter and put it in the fridge.  The next morning – Valentine’s Day – I braved the record-breaking deluge through flooded streets and broken traffic lights to acquire kid-and-pet-safe bait traps at the hardware store and deliver them to our friend’s home.  I then called six different pest control places, none of whom could come until the next week and none of whom were willing to just trap one creature.

The care giver thought that Bruce might have entered through a hole in a cabinet vent which she maintained should be immediately plugged up by someone other than her. She then thankfully ended her shift and fled the house. But her replacement was even more rodent phobic than she.  Not gonna work in a house with a rat.

Given that Bruce’s demise had to be hurried along, I called Olof who came over with our should-be-patented kit we’ve affectionately dubbed Furry Varmint Demise: finger-breaking rat spring traps, peanut butter (rat food of choice), cheese cloth (to wrap the peanut butter in), and Brillo pads to stuff in places where you think the rats might be entering (Single Woman Home Repair School hint).

We carefully slid the baited spring traps underneath shelves where they would be heard but not seen if they went off.  We advised the care givers that we did not provide Deceased Rodential Retrieval Services between 7 p.m. and 8 a.m. 

 I also acquired some sealed plastic containers that could store food items that needed to be left on the counter to ripen.  I failed to mention that any self-respecting rat could chew through them if sufficiently motivated.  Sometimes illusion is as important as reality.  Getting the care givers back in the kitchen was imperative. 

Days went by and no more signs of Bruce. Tentative activity resumed in our friend’s kitchen. Olof and I began to wonder if this could be a new retiree cottage industry for us. 

As for Snowball, I was at the grocery store one afternoon some months ago when I got a call from Carol.  She weepily reported she was in the vet’s waiting room waiting to have Snowball put down.  The treatment plan would likely cause Snowball considerable discomfort with no guarantee of appreciably extending her life. A rat’s average life span is only two years and Snowball’s date of birth was unknown.

We cried over a memorial bottle of wine later that evening. And yes, it was really sad.

Sorry, Bruce.  It all comes down to being invited.

Care givers keep interior doors closed and 
towels underneath to keep from being attacked by Bruce