Let’s Talk Turkey

In 1535, Spanish colonialist and historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés published his General and Natural History of the Indies in which he described for the old world some of the elements of the new, including hammocks, pineapples, and turkeys.

Though the turkey had already been imported to Europe by this time and had been greeted with enthusiasm by farmers who found that they were kind of delicious and got to work domesticating them, Oviedo’s work offers the earliest really good description of the bird that graces most US Thanksgiving tables.

By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris – Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227219

But Europeans were far from the first to domesticate the wild turkey. More than two thousand years ago, the early people of Mexico could lay claim to that. Turkeys have long been an important part of most Native American cultures. Heavily featured in folklore, turkeys provided feathers for ceremonial headdresses, acted as insect control, and became a reliable food source when larger game proved more elusive. And in case you wanted to give one a try this Thanksgiving, the internet includes plenty of turkey recipes out of Mexico that claim to span millennia.

Anthropological research from the last few years suggests Native Americans in what would become the southeastern US were also domesticating this most thankful of birds as early as 1200 AD. So, when Europeans started to do it, it wasn’t exactly a big deal.

It was, however, a pretty good idea because turkeys can be a challenge to hunt. They are incredibly skittish and can be difficult to lure in with calls, despite the fact that manufactured calls are better than they’ve ever been. And according to a lot of turkey hunters, it’s getting harder every year.

A male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) strutting at Deer Island Open Space Preserve near Novato, Marin County, California

Part of the explanation for this is that in the early twentieth century, wild turkeys in North America were nearly extinct. They were facing increased habitat pressure and had been severely over-hunted. The fact that the population is flourishing today is a triumph of intense wildlife management, but also of the process of natural selection which obviously favored the birds that were too careful to get themselves successfully hunted.

As a person who has no particular desire to go turkey hunting, this doesn’t much bother me. But I do have friends and loved ones who enjoy the sport, or at least they are pretty sure they would if they could find success. Personally, I’m perfectly content to buy a domestic bird from the freezer section of my grocery store. Even if I have trouble finding the exact size I want, I have never failed to bag a turkey at the grocery store.

That is until this week.

If you read my post last week, you know that my family and I have been quarantined since my youngest son tested positive for Covid. He’s fully recovered and at this point none of the rest of us have developed symptoms, but the timing of our quarantine caused a problem.

Thanksgiving is saved!

With Thanksgiving coming up next week, we are really close to the time when we’d have to remove our frozen turkey to the refrigerator to begin thawing. Trouble is, though we did have plenty of toilet paper on hand, we didn’t yet have our frozen bird when we went into lockdown.

We do live in an area where it’s easy to get grocery delivery, but when my husband and I started thinking about a stranger picking out our Thanksgiving turkey for us, we hesitated. We realize this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you’re looking for a precise size, this close to Thanksgiving, sometimes the perfect turkey can prove a little elusive. And we didn’t want our delivery person to substitute seven Cornish game hens and some AA batteries when they couldn’t find the bird we wanted.

A smell this delicious transfers over Zoom I bet. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

It seems even domesticated turkey hunting can be a little tricky.

Fortunately, a hero emerged to rescue us from our predicament. My wonderful sister-in-law who lives a little more than an hour away from us, drove to our house to drop the perfect frozen bird on our doorstep. It should thaw in plenty of time for our favorite turkey recipe that doesn’t span millennia, but is still awfully good.

Barring any additional illness in the household, we should emerge from quarantine in time to hunt for all our own side dish ingredients, too. We have much to be thankful for this year!

I will be eating turkey next Thursday with my family, some live and most virtually, so I won’t be posting in this space. If you celebrate American Thanksgiving, I wish you and your loved ones a very happy holiday! If you don’t, then I wish you a very thankful Thursday!

A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse

It’s been kind of a rough week here in the United States. Anxieties are running high as we wait for the final results of what looks to be an incredibly tight hot mess of a presidential election between one guy that half the nation finds terrifying and another guy that the other half of the nation finds terrifying. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say we’re all a little stressed out.

So, I want to take a moment to harken back to a time sixty years or so ago when a political movement of critical importance took the country by storm and caused the well-informed citizens of the United States to scratch our heads and in one more or less unified voice, say, “Wait, what?”

My dog Ozzie, just as brazenly pantsless as the day he was born.

I refer, of course, to the great cause of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), which actually traces its roots back even further to a man named G. Clifford Prout, Sr. who was tired of seeing indecency in the fields and backyards full of frolicking, naked pets, livestock, and wild animals.

It was in May of 1959 when G. Clifford Prout, Jr. finally broke into the mainstream to continue the important work his father had begun, with an appearance on the Today Show on NBC. There he explained that SINA was pushing for the clothing of “any dog, cat, horse, or cow that stands higher than four inches or longer than six inches,” and touted the SINA slogans: “Decency today means morality tomorrow” and my personal favorite, “A nude horse is a rude horse.”  

Finally. Decency. photo credit: Hanafan It is no dog? via photopin (license)

The American media was intrigued, and so was the public. Prout worked for several years to spread the message that to allow naked animals to run amok, causing all manner of accidents as motorists become distracted by fields of naked cows and bulls, was not only irresponsible, but immoral.

Based in New York, SINA gained momentum, claiming branch offices in Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and even London. Anyone could join as long as they desired to decently clothe their pets, and if they could get away with it, their neighbor’s pets, too. The organization would not accept money, however, because Prout was independently wealthy and the bylaws disallowed it.

Does one have to apply for the job of hoakster? Because I think I might enjoy that. Alan Abel by Cranky Media Guy at English Wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Of course, good journalism is hard work rarely done, and so it took a while for anyone to uncover the fact that G. Clifford Prout, Jr. was less nutter than fictional. He was a character portrayed by actor, writer, and director Buck Henry and created by hoaxter and mockumentary filmmaker Alan Abel who played the part of SINA’a vice president Bruce Spencer.

After CBS aired an interview with Prout, conducted by America’s most trusted newsman Walter Cronkite, in which Cronkite displayed amazing fortitude by not laughing out loud at his ridiculous guest, some members of the crew put two and two together. They recognized Henry, who at the time, actually worked at CBS. Cronkite was furious, but word was out.

I guess I might buy that this guy would
put pants on his dog.
photo by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Time broke the story of the hoax shortly after that in 1963, the animals took off their pants, and everyone (except Walter Cronkite) had a good laugh about it.

SINA was one of the most successful hoaxes Abel ever pulled off, though far from the only one. He was the man behind Omar’s School for Beggars, Euthanasia Cruises, Ltd., and a mass coordinated fainting episode that briefly cleared the audience from a taping of The Phil Donahue Show. He even made a fake run for Congress on the platform of selling ambassadorships, infusing the water in the drinking fountains in the senate with truth serum, and eliminating Wednesday to create a four-day work week. Actually, I’m in favor of at least one of those.

If he hadn’t passed away in 2018, I might assume he was behind the cluster that is the 2020 presidential election, too. At least I kind of hope it’s a hoax. That sure would make the journalists mad, but I’d probably laugh. Because this is seriously as ridiculous as insisting that horses wear pants.

Does Superman Have Wisdom Teeth?

Recently I was asked a very serious question: “Knowing, as we do, that Superman is an alien from the planet Krypton who exhibits superpowers when exposed to the yellow sun of Earth, and if the planet Krypton had not blown up, what superpowers would humans exhibit if they were to travel there?”

I say this is a serious question because it was posed to me by my fifteen-year-old son who, at the time, didn’t find it amusing in the least bit. In fact, the question came at the end of a long and very thoughtful analysis of the short story he’d just read for his English class.

I couldn’t actually figure out how the thoughts connected, but I’m sure they did. He’s very smart. He was also shaking off anesthesia, which might explain why a normally fairly rational kid was sounding a little loopy.

It is extremely difficult to understand the rapid string of words spewing out of the mouth of a post-op teenager with swollen chipmunk cheeks and a face mask.

Last week my son hit a developmental milestone, recommended by his dentist who looked at the latest x-ray of his mouth and condemned his wisest and most thoroughly impacted third set of molars to extraction. In the interest of preserving the results of a great deal of orthodontic work and avoiding a whole lot of future pain, we agreed.

We’ve been enormously fortunate that this is the first surgical procedure either of our children has had to undergo, and also that recovery, though not painless, has been pretty smooth and steady. I’m glad we got it done early, because the list of all the problems potentially caused by keeping your wisdom teeth is long and significantly scarier than the also pretty substantial list of potential problems of removing them. It turns out only about 2% of Americans over the age of 65 still have them.

Having too many teeth crammed into your mouth can be a serious problem, as we now know it was for fellow mammal and overlarge superstar Jumbo the elephant. Captured at only four years old after his mother was killed by hunters, Jumbo lived in London for twenty-two years where he delighted children by giving rides to scores of them on his enormous back. In 1882, much to the chagrin of the elephant-loving English public, Jumbo was sold to P.T. Barnum, allegedly because the elephant was getting a little hard to handle.

He wasn’t as large as Barnum claimed, but researchers say Jumbo wasn’t done growing by the time he died, and he might well have made it there. By Oliver Ditson & Co. – Library of Congress: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Touted as the largest elephant ever to live by the greatest exaggerator who ever lived, Jumbo was a hit in America as well, but there was a problem. By day he was a gentle giant, but by night, he became kind of a ferocious beast.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that researchers began to understand why. They looked at the bones and teeth of the deceased pachyderm and discovered that 19th century elephant husbandry wasn’t the best. Jumbo’s diet consisted of grasses, hay, and oats. Sometimes also coins and toys and sticky buns from his adoring fans, not to mention the whiskey that was meant to calm him down when he became too agitated.

What was lacking in his diet were the necessary twigs and barks that would have worn down his teeth had he lived as a wild elephant. This kind of roughage would have worn down his teeth and made room for new backup teeth to emerge and replace them. Without that process, the poor thing ended up with a tremendous toothache from the pressure of the new teeth pushing against the old.

What I picture when I think about performing oral surgery on the biggest elephant who ever lived. photo credit: wuestenigel Miniature people cleaning teeth on white backgroudn via photopin (license)

Jumbo died tragically only a few years after coming to America, but even if Barnum’s people had understood the source of the aggression problem they’d have had a hard time solving it. There were shockingly few oral and maxillofacial surgeons operating on elephants in late 19th century America. It might even be safe to assume that’s pretty much a super-duper sub-specialty kind of thing even today.

Fortunately, in 21st century America, it’s not too difficult to find one willing to work with human patients. My son was treated by a wonderful surgeon. The procedure was over pretty quickly without complications or whiskey, though I imagine that might have led to similar superman-themed questions.

He’s doing well, but at this point, I do want to note that this post was written not only with permission from my wisdom-toothless son, but at his insistence. Because even though he realizes he was pretty drugged up when he asked, he’d really like to know the answer to his question and he’d love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, UFOs

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been kind of avoiding watching/reading/listening to much news lately. Under normal circumstances, I’m not exactly a news junkie, but I do like to check in more or less regularly on the goings on in the world.

It’s just that right now, the goings on seem to be mostly a lot of speculation, irresponsible  political arguing, and sensationalism of the latest invasive species to hit the Pacific Northwest, which, by the way didn’t actually happen for the first time just this past month. Also, we don’t call them murder lions, even though they rip out the throats of their unfortunate victims, so why are these called murder hornets?

asian giant hornet
I mean, I’m not saying it wouldn’t make me a little nervous to meet this thing in a dark alley, but it’s possible we’re being a tad overdramatic here. Asian Giant (MURDER) Hornet. Thomas Brown / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

And that’s why I haven’t been keeping up too closely with the news lately. But I did catch the tiniest hint of a story the other day, and in case it slipped your attention, I wanted to make sure it didn’t. Because apparently, on April 27th, the US Navy released video evidence of UFOs.

Of course, this in itself is nothing particularly new. Alien spacecrafts have been visiting the Earth since at least somewhere around 1450 BC, during the reign of Egypt’s Thutmose III. That’s when it’s believed the papyrus was written that contains descriptions of flying circles of fire (sometimes translated as fiery disks, which frankly sounds way more alieny to me) that Vatican Museum Egyptology Director Albero Tulli found in a thrift shop in Cairo in 1933.

UFO
As the US Navy is quick to point out, “UFO” doesn’t necessarily mean alien spacecraft. It just means it could be a swarm of murder hornets for all we know. George Stock [4] / Public domain
Unfortunately, Tulli didn’t have a lot of cash on hand or something and so instead of finding a way to purchase a totally legitimate three thousand (and change)-year-old document collecting dust in a thrift shop, he just took some quick notes instead.

And that’s where it all would have ended, except that after Tulli’s death, Italian nobleman Boris de Rachewiltz, who’d gained a little bit of a reputation for competence in the area of Egyptology, discovered this dashed-off copy of Egyptian Hieratic text among Tulli’s papers. Rachewiltz got pretty excited about the whole fiery disks thing, threw together a fancier Hieroglyphic translation and called up some Egyptology contacts and the press.

That was in 1953 and it did create some excitement among UFOlogists (which is an actual thing that people call themselves), but it didn’t hold up in the opinion of the Condon Report produced by the University of Colorado UFO Project in the sixties, where it was pointed out that Tulli’s copy didn’t constitute a primary source and that meh, there probably wasn’t anything to see here.

blue angel
A much more intimidating Hornet. photo credit: wbaiv Blue Angels Fleet Week SF 2015 DSC_0670 (1) via photopin (license)

Sadly, the Navy UFO videos may not reveal much to get too excited about, either. In fact, the public has seen them before. Filmed from US Navy F/A-18 Hornets in November of 2004 and January of 2015, unauthorized copies of the videos have been circulating for several years already. The Navy has just gotten around finally to declassifying them, which is basically like saying meh, there’s nothing to see here. Officially.

And so, while the videos made a couple of headlines, they didn’t really stick around the news cycle for very long. It turned out there just wasn’t much to the story. Now, if the UFO footage had been taken from a US Navy F/A-18 MURDER Hornet, well, that would be a different story.

Why I Want to be a Science-y Lemming

The 1959 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Disney’s White Winter, largely for the wonderful exploration the film made of the strange case of lemming mass suicide. It is one of those fascinating oddities of nature, this little rodent that heads off overpopulation by sacrificing huge numbers of its own into the sea every seven to ten years. Narrator Winston Hibler plays up the drama of such an event, speaking of the thousands of little creatures following one another to their deaths.

Lemming_(1)
Lemming not in the process of committing suicide. Argus fin [Public domain]
It is a striking image for sure, one that since that documentary has come to symbolize the human phenomenon of group think. As strange as lemming behavior may seem to our larger human brains, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to it. We like to be part of a group, to share in the camaraderie of a single purpose.

At times, that can be a great thing about humans. Together, large group of individuals united in a single purpose can turn the tide of public opinion form wrong thinking into righteous action. And there’s been a lot of good accomplished in the world because of that. For example, the US Civil Rights Movement comes to mind.

But there’ve also been plenty of devastating events throughout history that have resulted from people en masse running headlong into atrocity, chucking their individual ideologies in favor of the group. The Holocaust might be one especially alarming example.

But for better or worse, human nature does things like that. We glom onto the herd and head for the cliff. Sorry to say it Moms everywhere, but yes, if our friends jump off a bridge, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to do it, too. It’s just that lemming-like part of our brains.

jump
I mean, it looks fun, yeah? photo credit: jeffschwartz decisive moment via photopin (license)

Except that Disney kind of misled us about the lemmings.

I’m embarrassed to admit this story came as somewhat of a shock to me when I stumbled across it a little while back. Though I don’t use it beyond occasionally attempting to give myself a little credibility when writing about science-y kinds of things, I do have a degree in zoology and frankly, lemmings committing mass suicide doesn’t make a lot of sense from a science-y perspective. But I never gave it any thought. Everyone knows lemmings run off cliffs and drown themselves in the ocean.

Of course, lemmings don’t really do that. It turns out the creators of White Winter collected a dozen or so lemmings from local Inuit children and in an Alaskan location that was neither by the ocean nor the natural home of said lemmings, used fancy camera angles and some elbow grease to make it look like the little critters ran gleefully to their own altruistic deaths. In fact, the animals were thrown into a river by the filmmakers. And an Academy Award was won.

oscar-3679610__340
And the award for Best Animal Cruelty in a Nature Documentary goes to. . .

I mean I guess if everyone thinks it’s a good idea to fling a bunch of helpless rodents into the water, it must really be a great idea.

To be fair, the documentary does suggest that mass suicide isn’t the best way to describe what the lemmings are allegedly doing. They are dispersing, or at least they might have been if the documentary had actually captured natural lemming behavior in the wild. For those of you without a science-y zoology degree, that just means the animals spread out over a wider area when their population becomes too dense. Sometimes when they do that, they’ll come upon a body of water in their way, and if they have to, they’ll swim. Some of them might even drown in the process.

But fancy filmmaking, which if you don’t consider the unethical choices made regarding wildlife might have been a good choice for Academy Award recognition, seems much fancier if it tells an awesome story. True wildlife filming is hard, because as anyone who watched that dreadfully boring television experiment in which National Geographic aired continual live footage of Yellowstone National Park can tell you, nature doesn’t just start acting all science-y the moment the director calls, “Action!”

Thinking is hard, too. I mean like really thinking, of the kind humans do when we listen to multiple perspectives even when we’re pretty sure some of those perspectives are being offered up by complete idiots. Or like when we conduct our own research on a controversial issue, looking to primary sources whenever possible and honestly challenging our own assertions. And boy here in the US for sure, and I suspect around the world as well, we have lots of groups shouting at us to throw ourselves off the cliff with the rest of the right-thinking people.

alone-480474__340
Admittedly this doesn’t look like as much fun as jumping off a bridge, but it doesn’t look so terrible, either.

I suggest instead, we take another more important and much more science-y lesson from our friends the lemmings. Maybe instead of bunching up in the same place we’ve been, where we’re being crushed by the same ideas shouted louder and louder, we should take a moment to step back, to get away, to put some distance between ourselves and the mob.

Yes, we might come upon a body of water. But I think having a little more elbow room, and listening to our own voices for a change, might be worth the swim.

A Classy Post about a Loyal Dog with an Unfortunate Name

On the night of May 29, 1805 in the Montana wilderness, a group of intrepid and weary explorers got a shock when a large buffalo bull came charging across a river, pushed off a long, wooden canoe, and crashed his way through camp. The agitated beast stomped within eighteen inches of the heads of several of the sleeping men, causing a ruckus throughout the company before anyone had time to really react.

lewisclarkseaman
Lewis and Clark and Seaman. St. Charles, Missouri. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Meriwether Lewis journaled about the scare, expressing both his relief that none of the members of the Corps of Discovery had been hurt in the incident and his pride in his dog, whose fierce and heroic reaction to the buffalo had convinced it to change direction and run out of the camp. The dog referred to was a large black Newfoundlander named Seaman.

Said to be the only animal to have made the entire trip, Seaman was evidently a pretty special pooch. Lewis purchased his doggo for twenty dollars in Pittsburgh in 1803 while awaiting the completion of the boats for his upcoming journey through the vast wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific Coast.

lewisandclarktrail
There may not be any Seaman on this sign, but we know he was all over the place on the trail.

Seaman was a great defender of his pack, a pretty good hunter of tasty squirrels, and a fearless retriever of whatever the men managed to shoot. He must have been an impressive animal because a Shawnee man wished to purchase him for three beaver pelts, an offer that made Lewis scoff.

The Newfie shows up sporadically in Lewis’s writings, but it’s clear from the mentions that Seaman was a favorite of all, filling the role of mascot for the expedition. And that’s kind of how he’s portrayed now, too. You can find Seaman statues and monuments all along the Lewis and Clark Trail, including St. Louis, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Washburn, North Dakota; Great Falls, Montana; Seaside, Oregon; and many others.

seamanpostoffice
A less classy blogpost might find humor in stating that you can find Seaman all over the city of St. Charles.

You can also find him in St. Charles, Missouri, where the Corps of Discovery met up with Captain Lewis and Seaman to officially begin the journey to the west.

There, on the bank of the Missouri River, stands a fifteen-foot tall bronze statue of Lewis and Clark with their trusty canine companion. And in the last week or so, a lot more statues of Seaman have cropped up throughout the town, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.

To commemorate its Sestercentennial, the city commissioned local artists to decorate twenty-five statues of the famous dog that are now placed at local businesses throughout the town and that are starting to light up my Facebook feed as friends stumble on them and share obligatory pictures.

And I’m trying to be high-minded enough not to picture the meeting in which a member of the city’s promotions department pitched the idea that they should cover the whole town in Seaman. A number of other bloggers and journalists have been unable to resist the built-in, low-brow jokes. I find myself wondering whether the person who came up with the idea got fired, or got a raise.

Because people sure are talking about St. Charles, Missouri and its abundance of Seaman. I wasn’t the only person hunting him down for pictures on a pretty Wednesday afternoon. He is cute. And everyone loves a good doggo, even one with a possibly kind of funny-sounding name. You don’t have to be a dog person yourself to appreciate the aww factor of man’s best friend.

seamanpopcorn
Purple Seaman covered in popcorn on the streets of St. Charles.

The men of the Corps of Discovery certainly did. Even though hard times forced them to consume more than two hundred dogs during the expedition, Seaman made the entire journey alive and well.

Though it’s not entirely clear what happened to him after the trip, an 1814 account by Clergyman Timothy Alden writing about (then deceased) Meriwether Lewis, mentions the man’s dog who refused food and comfort, eventually dying of grief at the grave of his master.

It’s not a huge leap to assume that Seaman was the broken-hearted canine, a loyal pet that chased away a rampaging buffalo and became one of the greatest mascots in American history. He’s the kind of trusty companion worth remembering on the 250th anniversary of the town where his epic journey began, even if his name sounds a little funny. I mean, if you’re into that kind of humor.

 

A Modern-Day Not-a-Fish Story

When in July of 1891, the ship Star of the East made it to port in Connecticut after a two-and-a-half-year journey, it brought with it a story of Biblical proportions. Among the ship’s crew was a relatively new sailor by the name of James Bartley, who had, in his short time at sea, become the center of one of the biggest fish stories ever told.

whale
Yes, dear reader, I am perfectly aware that this is a marine mammal and not actually a big fish. Thank you for your concern.

The previous February of that same year, the Star of the East, found itself whaling off the coast of South America, near the Falkland Islands. There, two longboats full of sailors tangled with a large whale. One of the two boats became upset by the harpooned creature, which was understandably also pretty upset. The crew believed two of the men, including James Bartley, lost to the deep.

That might have been the end of James Bartley’s story, but the crew managed at last to haul the great not-a-fish aboard their vessel and began the long process of dressing their catch, harvesting the valuable blubber. Before long, they noticed something strange—the dead whale’s stomach writhed as though it were about to birth an alien.alien birth

Because as anyone who has ever seen Alien can tell you, nothing good ever burst out of a creature where it didn’t belong in the first place, the sailors took their time getting the stomach opened up. When they did, out spilled James Bartley, alive, if not especially well.

Bleached by the whale’s intestinal juices, Bartley’s skin was white and shriveled and he spent the rest of his life mostly blind. As you might expect, he wasn’t in the best frame of mind either, and suffered the emotional effects of his marine mammal imprisonment for some time afterward. But apparently by July, he was ready to tell the world about his harrowing adventure and fulfill his role as the modern-day Jonah.

You might be a little skeptical of this story and you wouldn’t be alone. But the crew of the Star of the East backed up the sailor’s claims and Bible literalists jumped at the opportunity to share what they saw as scientific proof that anyone who wished to paint the Biblical Jonah story as allegorical was a dunderhead of the first rate.

Dubious details or not, the public loved the story of James Bartley and the whale. Even after the wife of Star of the East captain John Killam claimed in a letter fifteen years later that the story was entirely invented, the tale persisted, popping up every few years in small publications, Bible commentaries, and in Ripley’s Believe it or Not comic strip, complete with insistent claims that unnamed sailors and scientists say people get swallowed by whales all the time.

jonah
Jonah is Spewed Forth by a Whale by Gustave Doré [Public domain]
Because it’s the kind of miraculous story people want to believe. So, it was pretty exciting when South African wildlife photographer Rainer Schimpf recently had a similar experience. While diving and photographing a sardine run near Port Elizabeth Harbor, Schimpf found himself head first inside the mouth of Bryde’s Whale.

Still, when I say it was a similar event, there were some important differences. First, there’s photographic evidence of the event. A colleague of Schimpf’s managed to snap a great shot of his flippered legs dangling from the side of the creature’s mouth. Also, this modern-day Jonah was not swallowed whole. In fact, in post-event interviews, the photographer confessed that he knew the whale could not swallow him. His only real concern was that the animal might drag him into the deep where he would surely drown.

Fortunately, the whale was clever enough to realize he didn’t care for the taste of wetsuit and was quick to spit out his accidental nibble as if it were a chicken bone, unharmed and with a great not-a-fish story to tell.

chicken bones
Not a bowl of sardines.

Because it is a great story. And so is the tale of James Bartley, even though it almost certainly didn’t contain even an ounce of truth. In 1991, a professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania named Edward B. Davis investigated the claim. He discovered that there really was a ship, though not a whaling vessel, called the Star of the East, and that it is plausible the ship might have been near the Falklands at the time of the alleged event. But what he also found is that among the thorough records available was not a single mention of a sailor by the name of James Bartley.

And that is where the not-a-fish story of James Bartley really does come to an end.

Dirty Man in the Snow

In 1925, Greek photographer and geologist N. A. Tombazi, while on a British Geological Expedition in Tibet, saw something kind of strange. At an altitude of about 15, 000 feet, Tombazi’s local guides pointed out an unexpected shadowy figure two to three hundred yards from camp that looked to the photographer like a lone man, casually picking at bushes and lumbering through the snow.

bigfoot-1620140_960_720
Looks legit to me.

The figure was moving away and soon left the sightline of the expedition party, but Tombazi investigated the location to discover what looked to him more or less like human footprints, clearly left behind by a bipedal creature. He made the assumption that what he’d seen was in fact some sort of traveling hermit, but his guides were convinced they’d spotted the creature the press had dubbed, “The Abominable Snowman.”*

The impressively catchy name had come from an imperfect translation of a sherpa’s account in 1921 when another expedition led by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury stumbled on some strange footprints in the Lhakpa La region of Mount Everest. The local guide used the creature’s Tibetan name, which more closely translates as “dirty man in the snow.” Howard-Bury attributed the prints to an orangutan (unlikely) or an overstepping wolf. Despite his local companions’ insistence, he did not believe what he’d seen was evidence of a yeti.

He might not have been too far off with his wolf assessment. The yeti has been the subject of folk tales throughout the Himalayas since well before Alexander the Great failed to see one in 326 BC. It is a fearsome creature existing only in the wildest of places, promising great misfortune for anyone unlucky enough to cross its path. It’s kind of the Big Bad Wolf of the Himalayas, scaring children and adults into making smart choices and remaining relatively safe.

mt everest
If I were a large, shy, possibly harry and ferocious bipedal creature that may or may not, in fact, be a bear, I’d want to live here. Actually, I wouldn’t. Looks cold. Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
But if there’s one truth you can always count on, it’s that the press will run with a great sensational story. The press loved the Abominable Snowman and may have even created an imaginary credible witness named William Hugh Knight.

Because who doesn’t get a little excited about terror in the snow? As a survivor of a recent epic snowstorm, I can safely say no one.

Last weekend, the Midwest got hit with a lot of snow. By a lot, I mean the Greater St. Louis region received about eight to twelve inches throughout. That amount of snow doesn’t rival the great Northeastern storms that dump feet of snow on Buffalo, New York several times a year, but it’s fairly significant in an area accustomed to receiving no more than fifteen inches or so per year.

I don’t mean to make light of it, at least not entirely. Roads were certainly bad, stranding lots of people and cars for quite a while, and there were a few fatal accidents. I understand that part of the job of the media is to encourage people to prepare for the worst so that it can be avoided as much as possible. And most people did prepare, as was obvious by the lack of bread and milk on the shelves at local grocery stores.

For a time, St. Louis and its “Sno-pocalypse 2019” commanded constant coverage. The Weather Channel even sent their world-renowned severe weather expert Jim Cantore, the same guy who shows up on the scene of hurricanes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. This for a slightly above average snowfall that wasn’t accompanied by damaging winds or so much as a thin sheet of ice.

The “storm” was mostly just a picturesque weather event that happened over a weekend when the roads would typically be less traveled anyway and made everyone feel a little like they lived in a snow globe.

The coverage was pretty much hysterical, with breaking news that consisted of interviews conducted in front of scenes of ongoing snowball fights on the grounds of the St. Louis Arch with citizens saying things like, “Oh, yeah, it took me maybe an extra hour to get here. Traffic was pretty slow moving.” A good ol’ fashioned Abominable Snowman sighting definitely would’ve punched things up.

snowman
The Abominable Snowman of the Midwestern US.

But no one has seen the Yeti for a while and experts seem to agree that most of the “evidence” of its existence can be attributed to the region’s bear population. To be fair, stumbling across a bear while wandering around the mountains can also bring pretty bad luck.

Still, the people living in the Himalayan regions generally believe and the Yeti is big tourist business. In Bhutan, there’s even a refuge called the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary that was officially formed, in part, to preserve Yeti habitat.

If one is ever caught on camera or is spotted by a credible witness, you can bet the press will pounce. The Weather Channel might even send in Jim Cantore to stand in the way of danger and give us all the scoop. That is unless St. Louis is expecting up to a foot of gently falling snow.

 

*I want to thank my eleven-year-old son for recommending this week’s blog topic, demonstrating that everyone loves a good yeti story.

Head Foot Awareness Days

Sometime toward the end of 1873, Newfoundlander Moses Harvey found the bargain of a lifetime. For just ten dollars the amateur naturalist and writer purchased the carcass of a giant squid. Harvey bought his prize from a fisherman who’d caught the creature by accident and I suspect was somewhat relieved to be rid of it. Harvey’s sea monster friend soon set up residence suspended above a tub in the living room where it became the first of its species to pose for a photograph.

newfie
Not that kind of Newfoundlander, but this makes a much cuter picture than a giant squid carcass.

People had been catching glimpses of the strange cephalopod since at least as early as the mid-twelfth century when the first partial descriptions appear in writing. For centuries, this creature served as a source of fear, as the great kraken of legend that pulled large ships to the bottom of the sea and possessed an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

It wasn’t until 1752 when Eric Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen wrote his First attempt at a Natural History of Norway (translated three years later into English) that anyone took a stab at a complete description. Even then, Pontoppidan didn’t get it quite right.

He claimed the one-and-a-half-mile wide kraken, with its spiky tentacles, was often mistaken for an island, and attracted its prey by regurgitating a great deal of partially digested fish to lure more into its giant, open mouth. Because of this behavior, Pontoppidan explains many fishermen thought the harvest above a kraken was rich enough to overcome a little fear of becoming a sea monster’s snack. He also reassured his readers the biggest risk ships faced when dealing with the kraken might not be getting pulled to the bottom of the ocean by its many serpentine tentacles, but rather getting sucked into the swirling vortex that followed in its wake.

sqid
The focal point of any good living room design. Public Domain, via. Wikimedia Commons

Though now we know a little more of the sciency details of the somewhat elusive giant squid I think we can probably all admit that it’s a pretty darn creepy-looking animal. Also we’re pretty sure the species probably maxes out in size around forty-three feet long. Don’t get me wrong. That’s super big. But it’s not quite 1 ½ miles.

It does have sharp, spiky feeding tentacles, bringing its total number of appendages up to ten. With these, the squid guides prey, usually deep-water fish, to its sharp beak. To the best of our modern-day scientific knowledge, the giant squid has never been known to suck a ship into its swirling vortex of death and it doesn’t seem terribly interested in eating people.

There is some speculation that a particularly feisty squid could mistake a small ship for a sperm whale, one of its only known predators. Some squid enthusiasts (of which there are apparently a few) suggest this could result in an awesome sea battle that a small ship would almost certainly lose. Still, as long as you don’t set sail on a submarine with Captain Nemo I think you’ll be okay.

maneatingsquid
Cephalopod is Latin for “head foot.” Kraken is Norwegian for “that cephalopod is going to eat you.” Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Since most of us will never even encounter a giant squid washed up dead on a beach, or have the opportunity to purchase one for ten dollars, we’ll just have to appreciate them from afar. And today is the day to do it. Established in 2007 by The Octopus News Magazine Online forum (I told you there were squid enthusiasts), October 11th is Kraken Awareness Day, or technically, “Myths and Legends Day,” just one day in the string of days beginning on October 8 that are set aside to for Cephalopod Awareness. Because obviously one day isn’t enough.

I don’t know about you. I’m not about to display a giant squid in my living room or anything. But I suppose it  can’t hurt to be aware.

Black Bears on the Move: Suburban Shock and Awww

On November 14, 1902 US president, outdoor enthusiast, and big game hunter Theodore Roosevelt experienced a profound moment of awww when he refused to shoot a young black bear. The president was the only member of a hunting party near Onward, Mississippi who had yet to bag a bear when one of his assistants decided, appropriately enough, to assist. The man cornered a young bear and somehow managed to tie it to a tree with a length of rope.

TheodoreRooseveltTeddyBear
I mean, who could shoot that? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the president refused to shoot the animal, claiming that to do so just wouldn’t be sporting. Awww. I find that a fairly endearing story, but Roosevelt had to endure a little bit of ribbing from the company of, evidently, less sporting men who asked him to hand over his man card.

Of course, the press also got hold of the story. Then it wasn’t long until political cartoonist Clifford Berryman chronicled President Roosevelt’s mushy side for the Washington Post. And that was fun. Everyone had a nice chuckle at the soft-hearted leader of the free world.

It also gave one man a great idea. Morris Michtom, candy seller and maker of stuffed animals for children, decided it would be a good idea to make a sweet stuffed bear dedicated to the president. People loved the bears, and when Michtom asked President Roosevelt for permission to name the toy in his honor, as he no longer possessed a man card anyway, he agreed. Teddy’s bear was born, and in the years since has become the prolific teddy bear, beloved by children throughout the world, teaching all of them that bears are soft and squishy and should be given lots of hugs.

 

bears
Super huggable.

 

But it turns out that might not be entirely accurate, because as cute as they are, and they are CUTE, hugging black bears isn’t a great idea. At all.

Fortunately, in my corner of the world, we don’t have to think about it too much. Or at least that’s what I thought before a recent story broke in which a representative from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources calmly discussed the wild black bears now rambling their ways through the suburbs of St. Louis.

Much like Mississippi, the great state of Missouri was once home to a large population of black bears, and in the last few years, the dwindled population has been making a comeback. They’re out there. On one hand that’s great. Predators are an important part of ecosystems and their presence or absence is a good gauge of ecological health. But Missouri bears rarely take up residence in the suburbs.

black bear in the suburbs
Look at that cutie being all cute. But from a distance, okay? photo credit: RickyNJ Black Bear via photopin (license)

These haven’t. Allegedly they are just passing through and the experts have asked everyone to please keep calm. They’ve also asked us all not to feed or shoot the bears. And though to the best of my knowledge no one has said this specifically, I don’t think we’re supposed to try to give them squishy hugs, either.

I have seen a few videos of the critters as they make their way west, through suburban yards, and toward bear-appropriate wilderness. As far as I know, no people, pets, or bears have been hurt along the way, but there’ve been plenty of people surprised to see them, and once the shock has passed, a fair bit of awww.