Friday, February 01, 2008

Article: Snake Farm

Capybaras lounging at the Snake Farm

(Note: The Snake Farm has changed ownership since this article was written. I went again during the Fall of 2007 and found conditions much improved. More cages were labeled and new enclosures were being built for the capybaras and some of the other animals.)

If you've ever driven down I35 to San Antonio, you can't have missed the signs for the Texas Snake Farm. It's one of those places you pass over and over again, curious but driving on because you have someplace else to go; a throwback to the days of weekend road trips and roadside attractions. As with all roadside attractions, you have to be a bit skeptical. After all, the so-called World's Largest Pecan in Seguin is just a statue and not even the largest statue of a pecan at that. So is the Snake Farm really a snake farm?

Well, it's certainly not a farm. More than anything it resembles a giant exotic pet store crossed with a zoo from about 30 years ago. Inside are a wide variety of snakes housed in the small plastic containers that are typical among amateur herpetologists. They're simple, safe and efficient but not aesthetically pleasing. Add to that the thick wire cages that surround them and the place looks a bit like a prison.

There are a lot of snakes there though, many of them highly venomous. One of the most beautiful and interesting is the Gaboon viper, a thick bodied, poisonous snake with small horns on its snout and a bold pattern. In the back room there is a well-stocked bookstore dealing mainly with reptiles but also other types of animals. Past the books is a snake pit with maybe two dozen rattlesnakes of various species. The snakes are no more than five feet long and the cement walls of the pit must be twenty feet deep, add the wire mesh lid and viewing is safe but difficult.

Out the back door is an exotic animal park with llamas, miniature horses, longhorn cattle, ostriches, capybara (the world's largest rodent), monkeys and more. In this area the feeling of an old zoo is overpowering. The animals are kept in small cages with minimal adornment. The serval cat paces endlessly, its long legs quickly taking it back and forth along the short wall of its cage. Macaws and other exotic birds perch behind two layers of wire mesh in unlabeled cages.

This was my second visit, the first being many years ago and providing me with an experience that disinclined me to a repeat. As I wandered among the sale items, mostly toys and trinkets, some educational but most not, I was aware that a third visit was highly unlikely. I stared at a bin of alligator heads and wondered what motivated the owner(s). The label on one of the heads indicated that the alligator was farm raised for food. The heads were so small it didn't seem like much meat could have come from such an animal. I have no problem with farming alligators, in fact I think it's a good idea, but I'm still thinking the heads send the wrong message with their tiny gaping mouths and sharp little teeth. What are all of these dead faces saying to the visitors of the Snake Farm?

I wandered around a bit and eventually was able to talk to the owner, John Mellyn. I was prepared to condemn him for his treatment of the animals but instead I found he was a nice, articulate and caring man. He told me that the Farm is a member of the International Primate Protection League, that all (or nearly all) of the animals there are captive bred and that they breed many of the animals and sell or trade them to zoos. He's owned the Snake Farm for the last 13 of its 39 year history. It's a hard place to keep up and it doesn't make much money but he says he loves the work and the animals. He makes a point of helping people overcome their fear of snakes, frequently taking out his large python and letting people pet it.

Now I don't know what to think. I can't decide if the Snake Farm is a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe you'll just have to stop by and decide for yourself. The $7.50 adult admission fee will at least help support the animals. At least visit the web site:

Snake Farm & Exotic Animal Park
5640 IH 35 S
New Braunfels, Texas 78132-4945
(830) 608-9270

Photo: Coral looking over the rows of unlabeled snake cages.

Photo:: An ocelot paces endlessly in its cage.

Photo: Monkeys in a cage

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Disappointed in Obama

There have been some e-mails circulated about Barack Obama claiming that he is a Muslim, that he said the oath of office for his senate appointment on the Koran and that he will not say the Pledge. These things are not true of Obama and I can respect him correcting them. When asked about them in the New Hampshire debate, Obama countered that he is a Christian, that he said the oath of office on the bible and that he sometimes leads the pledge at the US Senate.

That's fine as far as it goes. Where it doesn't go is to say that people of all faiths are Americans. That there is a Muslim man in the US House of Representatives who said the oath of office on the Koran. That should he be a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, a Mormon, a Muslim or an atheist, that would not make him unfit for the office of President. That our politicians, as our people, as all people, should be judged on their character as individuals. So I was disappointed. He didn't stand up for religious freedom when he had a chance to do so. Still, I can understand the political realities. I don't absolve him of this oversight, but I understand him.

Then two days ago I got an e-mail that claimed to be from John Kerry about those same erroneous e-mails being circulated about Obama. At one point in the e-mail, Kerry states, "The truth matters, but how you fight the lies matters even more." I don't know about the "even more" part, but I do believe it is important how you fight the lies. Kerry continues on to say, "These disgusing lies ... smear Barack's Christian faith."

Does this say, as I take it to read, that being called a Muslim is disgusting? That it is a smear to a Christian to be mistaken for a Muslim? Is this the kind of language that promotes religious intolerance. This is not language we should condone of any American, let alone a potential president. I hate that someone defending Barack, someone I once supported, feels that it is okay to say this.

I am neither Muslim nor Christian but I would hope that we can strive for the ideals this country was founded on, religious freedom and religious tolerance must go hand-in-hand. Our leaders must promote these values.

(BTW, I've stopped writing my weekly newspaper article so these blog posts have become much less frequent.)

I got an email from the Obama campaign. This is my response to this.

Thank you for your canned response that in no way addressed my issue.

I am concerned that Senator Obama is not willing to take a stand for religious freedom when he feels that it might not be politically expedient. In his comments, and in the email from John Kerry, just the opposite appears to be true; he is willing to sacrifice the religious freedom of a minority for his own gains. Unless minorities have freedom, none of us is free. Not just philosophically but in fact, for we are all in the minority in some demographic.

I want change from the oppressive, fear-mongering policies of the current administration. Please prove to me that you mean to do it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Article: The garage of the brain

Cartoon from around 1980

After my car which was parked in the garage had a rat infestation, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the garage needed some serious cleaning. Each weekend and for an hour or so after work every day, I’ve been knocking things down from the rafters or moving them from the huge pile of junk at the back and throwing them into the truck for my now weekly trip to the dump. I throw away almost everything.

I’d gotten used to tossing stuff without looking at it when one dilapidated cardboard box caught my attention. Hey, this was my stuff! Stuff I wanted to keep. Stuff I’d looked for over the years and never found. Stuff that could not survive the hostile environment of the garage with its extreme temperatures, high humidity and rat and raccoon populations. Against all odds, most of the contents had survived.

A flood of memories washed over me as I opened a once-familiar lab notebook. This was my notebook from my Chem 5 Quantitative Analysis lab course at UC Berkeley. Wow, did I ever have neat writing back in those days. I couldn’t write like that now to save my life. Neat rows of numbers, precisely charted data, careful analysis. Come to think of it, I did pretty well in that class. Still, why keep such a thing? The data means nothing to me now. But my fingers stopped on a page showing a drawing of the laboratory apparatus used for one of the experiments.

I was surprised at the detail and care my younger self took with that drawing. What motivated me to be so detailed and meticulous? It’s not perfect but, if I had to, I could recreate that exact setup using that drawing. It made me remember how much I used to love to draw. I don’t do that anymore. Looking at the drawing I wondered why.

I pulled out a yellowed sketchbook with a missing cover. What a strange feeling to remember doing, feeling, thinking, something you’ve completely forgotten. I found a pencil sketch of a coyote dated July 3rd, 1972. I was only sixteen then. I made the drawing from a photo in an issue of National Geographic. It had taken me hours. Those hours, that drawing, that feeling of creation and satisfaction had disappeared from my memory as if they had never happened. And now they were back.

I picked the box up, this one would go into the house for closer examination. As I carried it, a brightly colored paper dropped out and floated on an imperceptible breeze to land under my car. I set the box down and gingerly picked the ancient sheet out of the dust. It was a felt-marker sketch of a red-and-white Pegasus, highly stylized. There was no date. Back in Junior High I was in a club that met at lunch once a week. The only thing I remember about that organization was making drawings like these to be used as greeting cards for nursing home patients.

Back in the house, I rummaged through my early years as immortalized in artistic endeavors. Amazing how things disappear into the past and don’t reach the surface of your mind again for years and years. And yet they are still there, tucked away in the mental equivalent of a garage rafter. I remember drawing that cartoon about a magician snake who could pull a rabbit out of its hat being compared to a dog that could roll over. It appeared in the newsletter for a reptile club I used to belong to. I remember all that now looking at the drawing. I didn’t remember it yesterday.

What a weird thing the mind is. This weekend I am going to try to sit down with a piece of paper and see if I can draw something. Not just the stupid doodles I do these days but an actual drawing. I wonder if I can still do that, if my mind retains not just the memory but the knowledge.

Photo: Diagram of experimental apparatus from my Chem 5 class at Berkeley.

Photo: A pencil drawing of a coyote I made when I was sixteen
Photo: A felt-marker drawing of a Pegasus, probably from junior high school.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Article: Miniature donkeys and giant rodents

Coral and Caplin meeting some adult miniature donkeys

Now that I’m back at work, my capybara is getting lonely. Since my husband works from home, this loneliness impacts him more than it does me. He suggested we get a small dog to keep Caplin company. While I like dogs, I’ve never wanted one. They are loud, demanding and they scare off the wildlife.

My daughter Coral suggested a miniature horse. Caplin’s breeders had a pair of miniature horses. They looked like horses that had been mashed down forcibly, oddly deformed and rather hideous. I know not all miniature horses are like that but I think the ones that aren’t are expensive. Maybe I’ll look into that some time in the future. In the meantime, what about a miniature donkey?

All of the mini-donkeys I’ve seen have looked just like big donkeys, only cuter. Ponies, such as Shetlands, and mini-donkeys were bred to their current size over hundreds of years to fit into places where their bigger cousins could not, but they did the same work. Shetlands worked in the mines. Miniature donkeys were beasts of burden mainly in Sicily and nearby islands.

Searching the web, I discovered that miniature donkeys make very good pets. According to Robert Green, who imported some of the first miniature donkeys to the US, “Miniature donkeys possess the affectionate nature of a Newfoundland, the resignation of a cow, the durability of a mule, the courage of a tiger, and the intellectual capability only slightly inferior to man's." That sounded good so we headed off to a local donkey breeder to see some of these little wonders.

Coral, her boyfriend Carl and I headed out to Small Pleasures Farm ( in Elgin. We brought Caplin with us to see how he reacted to the donkeys and how they reacted to him.

Susan and John Baker met us at their gate. They were instantly taken with Caplin but warned us the donkeys might be aggressive toward him. Three adults came to the fence to check Caplin out. They seemed friendly enough. However when we went into a pasture with jennets and foals, the mother donkeys seemed bent on attacking Caplin. The Bakers said donkeys view small animals like Caplin as predators. That certainly fit their attitude.

The donkeys were incredibly cute though and they were affectionate to their owners. We decided to try to introduce Caplin to two youngsters, a jack and a gelding, each about 7 months old. These two were very curious about the capybara. Caplin however appeared just as afraid of these guys as he was of the older donkeys.

Adult miniature donkeys are almost as small as Caplin will be as an adult. Adult capybaras stand about 24 inches as the shoulder and weigh around 130 pounds. The miniature donkeys we were looking at would probably mature at under 36 inches and around 250 pounds. That might work. Right now though Caplin only weighs around twenty pounds though and even these young donkeys must weigh at least 100 lbs. That’s a five fold difference. We decided it makes sense to wait for things to even out a bit more before mixing him with a donkey.

It was hard to pass on those cute little donkeys. That must be what the Bakers thought in 2000 when they bought their first mini-donkey. Looking around their manicured property, diced up into small pens and paddocks with mini-donkeys scattered throughout, I was amazed to learn they’d gone from two donkeys to fifty in just seven years. That’s good reason not to get the first one. My husband isn’t happy that I have four horses.

For more information:

The National Miniature Donkey Association:

The American Donkey and Mule Society

Two mini-donkey foals and a jennet. How adorable those babies are!
These two mini-donkeys are about seven months old and were potential Caplin playmates.
Coral and Caplin get to know Jackson, a very curious stud colt. Caps was a bit frightened.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Article: Car trouble

Over the years, the unused 1/3 of the garage has become a pile of trash.

On Saturday my husband and I prepared to attend a friend’s birthday party. It was a fancy affair requiring Rick to wear a suit and me to wear a dress. I seldom dress-up and it almost seemed like too much trouble. But it was a long-time friend of Rick’s and the food promised to be good.

I went to pull my Prius out of the garage while Rick finished getting ready. With his disability, Rick finds it hard to navigate in the garage. This is at least partly due to the garage being such a mess. Cleaning it is on my long list of things to do this month but I was letting it slide off the bottom. I punched the Power button and the car came to life with a low hum. I shifted into reverse and started to back.

The car didn’t move. I looked at the instrument panel, it was still in neutral, I must not have shifted correctly. But even after a more deliberate shift, the Prius refused to back, remaining steadfastly in neutral. I noticed a warning light in the shape of a red triangle with an exclamation mark bisecting it. On the navigation display was another red warning, this one shaped like a car with an exclamation point.

Rick came out of the house and wanted to know what was going on. I explained the situation to him. He panicked. Suddenly he was scrambling around trying to figure out how we were going to get to the party. Apparently it was more important to him than I had realized. He insisted I turn the car off and on again to see if the light would go away and the car would shift. Predictably, this didn’t work. Then he went to his car and started clearing out the front seat.

I never ride in Rick’s car if I can help it. It’s a nice car--or it was when it was new.--roomy, leather seats, everything electric, fancy. But Rick is one of those people who eats in his car and he’s not very neat about it. Plus cleaning the car is hard for him because of his disability. Not-quite-empty food wrappers stay in there for long periods. So I wasn’t eager to take that step.

I decided to read the Prius’ owner’s manual to see if the red car warning had a simple resolution. When I opened the glove compartment to retrieve my manual, I was greeted by quiet squeaking. Nestled amid the shredded remains of my proof-of-insurance form were eight newborn rats. I sat back in my seat and stared in disbelief. Clearly the appearance of the rats and the car’s malfunction were related.

I went into the house and returned with a plastic bag and some paper towels. No use letting the rats go to waste, they’re just the right size for feeding to my little rainbow boas. I packaged them up and put them in the freezer. As I pulled the baby rats out, I realized that the nest was not composed solely of my proof-of-insurance. There was other stuff mixed in and that stuff was most likely insulation from engine wires. Looking at the glove box, I noted that when closed, it would be easily accessible from the engine side by an animal the size of a small rat. It didn’t seem that my Prius was going anywhere soon.

Still, I didn’t want to ride in Rick’s car. Luckily, Saturday night was one of those wonderful, warm, Central Texas evenings. That meant we could take my Jeep even though I can’t put the top up. The wind ruffled us and hay blew in our faces but we got to the party on time.

Monday morning I called the service department at the dealer and explained my problem. I’m pretty sure they’d never heard it before. A tow truck came and hauled my Prius in. He’d never heard it before either.

The next day the mechanic called to give me the good news, “only” $300 to fix the wiring although it could have been much worse. Especially, he continued, considering that they discovered two more rats’ nests, one in with the spare tire and the other in the engine for a total of fifteen more baby rats. Sadly, I did not get to save these for snake food.

Today I started cleaning the garage. Although there is some evidence of rats, I haven’t actually found any, dead or alive, adults or babies. I don’t get it. I mean, I kind-of expect some rats to be around. We’ve seen the small, brown native rats around the property before. And the horses’ grain is just outside, plus the horses are sloppy eaters, spilling food everywhere. In that way they’re like Rick.

So why were the rats in my car and not Rick’s? I keep my car clean. It’s just not right.

Photo: Before his paralysis Rick stored all kinds of junk in the rafters in the garage. It's still there but now I think it's full of rats.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Article: Buzz's surgery

Buzz walking with vet students down the halls of the Texas A&M Large Animal Hospital

I had never been up to College Station before this week but I knew Texas A&M had the only veterinary school in the state. It’s not close but it’s not too far, which turned out to be lucky for me since my twenty year old gelding Buzz was diagnosed with a thyroid tumor requiring surgical removal.

I’ve never had a horse that needed surgery before. They get their share of cuts and scrapes, sprained joints and infections, but horses are resilient animals. They recover from almost anything with a few antibiotics and a good rinse a couple of times per day. And it’s very difficult to tell when something is wrong with them. Unless it’s their legs or feet, horses are incredibly stoic. The only way I knew Buzz was sick was that he lost weight. That’s not to say he stopped eating, he ate better than ever, but the pounds melted off him.

I was impressed when I arrived at the Large Animal Hospital parking lot of Texas A&M. The place was designed for easy parking for a whole bunch of trucks pulling horse trailers. I registered Buzz and went out to unload him. It turned out we were a few minutes early for our one o’clock appointment. To the west, dark clouds loomed, slowly advancing on our position. Luckily, the student labor quickly brought us inside, moments before the clouds burst violently open.

Buzz went into an immaculate individual exam room with all the modern facilities. The floor was spotless and slightly springy to make it easy for horses to walk. The ceiling was high to give horses the illusion of space they need to remain calm. Skylights provided natural light for most areas.

Several fourth-year vet student gave Buzz a quick physical, either they didn’t have much to do or they thought Buzz’s case was especially interesting. When they finished, their professor made an appearance. He listed to the students’ evaluation and asked me a few questions. Then he explained that the tumor was almost certainly benign and did not require surgical removal. In addition, such a tumor could not be responsible for the weight loss that made me seek veterinary help in the first place since Buzz’s thyroid function tested normal. I didn’t know what to think. I’d driven 130 miles in hopes of curing my horse. This did not sound promising.

They decided they might as well do an ultrasound of the tumor just to verify it was what they thought. The whole entourage--me, Buzz, the vet, and four or five vet students--went down the hall to the ultrasound room. There we met a vet who specialized in ultrasound and another vet tech or two to handle the machines. Buzz endured everything without a single spook as they sprayed alcohol on his neck and poked him endlessly.

Finally, the ultrasound vet said the tumor did not look good. It needed to be removed after all. He phoned another vet to find out where a thyroid tumor might migrate. Then they recommend chest xrays. No point removing the main tumor if there were already baby tumors infiltrating his body, they explained. The diagnosis had gone from the-tumor-is-nothing to your-horse-might-already-be-dead. Not a good feeling. I was glad Buzz didn’t understand. Luckily the xrays came back negative. Buzz had a reprieve.

Buzz spent the night in a special stall in a hallway that looked more like a prison block than a stable. His hour-and-a-half long surgery took place the following morning. Everything went well and the good news was that the tumor was encapsulated, making it less likely to have metastasized. The bad news was that it was highly vascularized, making it more likely to have metastasized. The tumor itself was sent to pathology which will take several days to come back with a diagnosis on the actual nature of the tumor.

In the meantime, Buzz is home again and doing well. Once his throat stops hurting, he’ll go back to eating four times the ration of grain I gave him before he got sick, still in the hopes of putting some weight back on him. Although the thyroid tumor was life-threatening, the vet still says it could not be responsible for his weight loss.

I admit, I am impressed and intimidated by the facilities and expertise of the veterinarians and students at the A&M Large Animal Hospital, but there is one thing my scientific background tells me: while it is not impossible for two unrelated potentially terminal conditions to arise at the same time, it is unlikely. From my experiences with medical doctors and my broken wrist, I know that medicine is not a science, everything is guesswork. I am hopeful that removing the tumor will restore my horse’s health. Poor horse, he probably thinks we know what we’re doing.

Photo: Clarissa Leight (age 10) riding Buzz in April, 2007, just before he got sick.

Photo: Buzz waiting for his trailer ride up to A&M--or, preferably, more food
Photo: Buzz getting chest xrays to see if the cancer has already spread.
Photo: I don't think I've ever seen Buzz more miserable than when he got out of surgery.
Photo: Poor horse!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Article: What makes a rodent a rodent?

Tequila, the pet mouse, peeks out of a "log"

I take my pet capybara Caplin everywhere. She goes out to lunch, to various flooring stores looking for new vinyl for the laundry room, to get new tires on my truck, to buy paint brushes. It’s surprising how many places you can take a capybara, maybe because she’s so unusual and people just don’t know what to think.

Wherever we go, Caplin gets a lot of attention. People want to know what she is. Of course, “capybara” doesn’t mean much so I have to further explain that capybaras are the world’s largest rodent. “Oh,” many people respond, “a giant rat.” I don’t have anything against rats, they’re smart, cute and they make great pets, but Caplin is not a rat. Nevertheless this common reaction led me to wonder exactly what it is that makes a rodent a rodent.

Over one quarter of all mammal species are rodents and several rodent species are commonly kept as pets. A hamster or a gerbil is often a child’s introduction to the responsibilities of pet ownership. When I was growing up we kept guinea pigs. Other rodents are prairie dogs, nutria, groundhogs, squirrels, marmots, gophers, beavers, lemmings, chinchillas, chipmunks and porcupines.

Most rodents are very social and very vocal, although much of their vocalization is outside the range of human hearing. The prairie dog is thought to have the most sophisticated animal language known. Naked mole rats, such as the one depicted in the cartoon “Kim Possible,” are the only eusocial mammal. Like ants and termites, naked mole rats are born into “castes” for which they develop unique physical traits. There is a colony of naked mole rats at the Houston Zoo and it is well worth a visit.

The main identifying characteristic of rodents is their teeth. Rodents have four very large teeth at the front of their mouths, two on the bottom and two on the top. These incisors grow throughout their lives and rodents must gnaw on things to wear them down. The teeth retain their edge due to a natural sharpening process. Thick enamel on the front but not on the back results in a wear pattern that constantly sharpens the teeth. Note that although rabbits have similar looking teeth, they are not rodents and belong to the Lagomorpha.

Another characteristic of rodents is that they are able to digest cellulose, the tough polysaccharide that makes up plant cell walls. They do this through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. Rodents have a specialized adaptation of the large intestine called the caecum where cellulose digestion takes place. Because cellulose breakdown occurs in the large intestine while absorption takes place in the stomach, rodents first eliminate the partially digested plant material in the form of pellets. The rodents then practice coprophagy which entails eating the passed pellets and returning them to the stomach for further digestion.

Most rodents are herbivores although rats and mice are omnivorous and a few species are specialized carnivores. The large incisors can be used to crack open seeds, cut tough plant stalks (in the case of beavers this even includes trees) and gain access to well-hidden human food stores.

Rodents association with food supplies and their ability to carry human disease has probably led to much of their negative image. It is common knowledge that the “Black Death,” the great bubonic plague epidemic that led to the Industrial Revolution, was spread by fleas that spent part of their lives on rats. Recently hanta virus has given the adorable prairie dog a bad name. On the bright side, rodents neither get nor carry the rabies virus.

I’m not sure how any of this information is going to help me explain Caplin to people who meet her. I’m sure they’re not going to want to know about the disease or the coprophagy aspects of rodent life. Maybe I’ll just mention she’s related to beavers. Or chipmunks, who can resist those little cuties?

Photo: Tequila's babies at the "hopper" stage.Photo: Caplin the capybara demonstrating the distinctive rodent teeth.
Photo: Prairie dogs, like this one from Big Spring, TX, have a complex social system and a language to match.
Photo: This groundhog lived in a burrow in a cemetery in Maine.
Photo: Chipmunks, or ground squirrels, are brightly colored and cute. This one lives in Yosemite National Park in California.
Photo: Squirrels, like most rodents, are herbivores. This one is eating a pear from a tree in my backyard.
Photo: There are more species of rodents than any other mammals. Notice this squirrel from Yosemite National Park looks quite different from the one from Texas.