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Life with Dogs and Cats

Monday, April 30, 2012

Imagine That: Dogs and Cats Texting

Those of us who share our lives with other species get to know them as individuals. We learn to intuit what they're thinking. They talk to us with their bodies, their eyes, their movements. And each cat, each dog, each bird or gerbil, has a different personality, a different way of looking at things, a different voice.

Athena, the schemer is obviously whispering some nefarious plan into Dawn's ear.

I "hear" Dr. Lilah patiently coaxing Athena into letting her clean her ears. I can tell what Dawn is saying as she tries to make me understand her plea, "You WILL feed the cat. You WILL feed the cat." I hear volumes in Jasper's sighs when he begrudgingly pours himself off the comfortable couch to greet someone at the door. And I get a peek into Tucker's mind when he's intensely focused on playing Ball. I can even hear the inflection and capitalization; it is most certainly not "ball," but "Ball."

What is Tucker saying?  "Please help. There's no dog food in the container."

I don't believe I'm alone in this. I think many of us speak for the animals who cannot. We hear their voices.

Jasper: "I don't really need to get off this comfortable couch, do I?"

Lilah: "What? You've never seen a dog floss her teeth with bunny whiskers?"

What if they could talk.


Okay, well, we all know that's impossible. But we're already imagining it.

Call me crazy. (Some do already.) But I've been thinking about this for awhile. This is why (and if you haven't called me crazy before, you will now), I created Twitter accounts for all my cats and dogs. And why each of them has a Facebook Page. (Go ahead, look up Athena Willett on Facebook, or LilahDogSpeaks on Twitter.) I was sure I could come up with a way to give them the voices I imagine.

And I've taken it one step fur-ther (intentional pun!). I'm happy to introduce you to my newest endeavor, a new website that imagines what would happen if Lilah, Jasper, Tucker, Athena and Dawn all had cell phones and could send text messages to me:

I call it (rather obviously) Dogs and Cats Texting.

It's been live for about two weeks. You can get there several ways:
or simply Google "dogs and cats texting" and my site will come up.

Once I started writing, it was incredible how fast the ideas kept coming. I have about 50 already noted and in progress. Because of this, I am posting a new text every day. And I keep coming up with more ideas daily. It amuses me, and I hope it will amuse you.

Feel free to share the posts or the site with your animal-loving friends if you think they might enjoy it. Spread the fun.

Below is a sample of one of the posts. Each one is a text message between one of the dogs or cats and me...and each has an accompanying photo.

The sample is hard to read here, unfortunately, but you get the idea. To see all the texts--and photos--go to the Dogs and Cats Texting site.

Click on this picture and you'll see a larger version, which is easier to read.

I will be starting a separate email list, which I will send out once a week for Complete with Dogs fans to see the latest posts.  Just like I do for Complete with Dogs, I will be using a mail service that makes it easy for you to unsubscribe. (I do not want to spam anyone and I promise I will not be insulted if you opt out.) However, if you'd like an email every time I update, which will be every day, you can sign up on the site. One of my friends, when asking for this feature, compared my posts to seeing a daily comic strip. For the more technically inclined, there is also an RSS feed.

I would love to hear your comments and feedback on this. I think it's fun--and funny--but then I'm kind of partial. And I hear voices.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Walk on the Wild Side

One of the benefits of having woods as part of my property, and being located next to a few hundred acres of forested county park--is the diversity of wildlife I am privileged to meet or simply observe.

I have more than a dozen birdfeeders in my back yard, but not all birds like to feast at feeders. Many prefer the seclusion of the forest, or prefer the menu available there. 

In addition, a few small streams flow through the woods, providing water not just for drinking, but as an environment for amphibious creatures.

In recent walks through the woods, I've met some of my forest neighbors. I'll introduce you...

At first, you might not actually see the residents of the forest, but they leave signs that let you know they were there.

A deer print in the mud.

A trail shows where the deer tend to walk.

Usually they see you before you see them.

Three deer peer at me from afar. The color of their coats blends in with grey and tan of the trees.

I'm in their neighborhood. I'm the intruder.

Sometimes you hear them before you see them. Birdsong fills the forest; you need a sharp eye to catch a glimpse of some of the more shy species.

When I think of robins, I think of wide green lawns. But their calls (which remind me of a high-pitched laugh) seem to come from everywhere in the woods.

A tufted titmouse takes a break on a low branch.

I'm pretty sure this was the work of a particular bird: the very large Pileated Woodpecker.

And sure enough, she makes an appearance. I can tell this is a female Pileated because a male would have a red stripe on his face--above his "mustache."

Sometimes the creatures are there, right in front of you, but easy to overlook.

An ant drags a prize along a fallen tree trunk. I think it is a bird dropping; not much is wasted in the finely balanced ecosystem of the forest.

I was staring at this frog for several minutes before I saw him, blending in among the aquatic plants and rocks in the stream.

Once you see one frog, others seem to appear out of nowhere.

And, as always, there is some representative of the greeting committee to welcome me back to the yard.

Tucker sticks his nose through the fence.

Every time I walk in the forest, I find something new. The light changes, new plants bloom. Nests and dens are built, and babies born. This is why I live near the woods.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Finding Flowers in the Forest

When I was growing up, I lived across the street from a small patch of woods that was part of a local park. The park itself was, at most, a five-minute walk from my home. It was my favorite place.

Very few people walked the paths in the part of the forest where I wandered. I knew kids would go there; beer bottles and some trash appeared now and again; it was somewhat obvious that there were areas that served as teen hangouts. But I never actually encountered any of these folks, and  the place nearly always was empty of humans. It felt as my own.

As others before me have said way better than I ever could, I went to the woods to seek solace.

I could sit in the quarry--a rocky area within the forest that was never actually quarried, I'm sure--for hours. I saw may apples and skunk cabbage, and watched insects. I remember being thrilled when a ground hog came ambling through. I let birdsong enter my consciousness.

Many years later, when I was able to purchase my first house, one of the most important aspects of the location was that it be in walking distance to at least a patch of woods, if not an entire parkful or forest. And when we moved into our current home, I felt like I had my own little bit of heaven, since about 1 1/2 acres of our property is woods that are almost contiguous with several hundred acres of wooded county parkland.

I still am in love with my forest; I walk it whenever I can, nearly always with camera in hand. And perhaps because of my early love affair with the woods, I see many things in our small area as I traverse the barely distinguishable path that we've gently crafted.

Sometimes I take the dogs when I walk in the woods, but not if I plan to take pictures or look for wildlife. The pups love it when I take them, of course--so many interesting smells and sounds.

Come walk with me and I'll show you some of what I see. In today's post, I feature just some of the amazing diversity of plants and flowers. I don't know the names of all of them, but that doesn't impinge on my appreciation.  All of the pictures below were taken over the course of just a few days this month. The forest never stands still; there is always something new to discover.

To get to the wooded part of our property, you need to go through a gate. The deer fencing we've put up ensures that the plentiful deer get to stay in their neighborhood, and I get to have a perennial garden. A wildflower of some sort (surely others would call it a "weed" greets you at the edge of the gate.

Just outside the gate, more of the same flowers grow. Several types of wildflowers grow here; on the edge of the woods, these plants receive a little more sunlight than those deeper within.

Many wild violets grow in the forest. These wind up in my perennial garden as well, and I let them stay, as their purple blooms offer early color.

Probably another "weed," this yellow flower seems elegant and simple. I have yet to identify everything in the woods; sometimes I think it's better that way; I get to enjoy something just because it exists, not because I know it's name.

I'm pretty sure this is wild honeysuckle, a New Jersey native. This also appears in my perennial garden, where I transplant is along my fence to create a living border.

Sometimes things are interesting simply because of where they are. Here, seedlings of some sort found a lovely natural planter in fallen log.

When woody vines fall die back or fall, they leave curvy patterns for the eye to discover.

Shelf lichen adorns a tree. Sometimes you'll encounter a whole trunkful.

And other times, just one nearly encircling a sapling.

Sometimes you discover that what you thought were different plants were really the same species at different life stages. I thought this little seedling was adorable; the colors unusual and quite decorative.

Here's another version--maybe a year or two older. I've always thought it fascinating that early spring is a preview of fall; young leaves sprout in the same autumnal colors before they turn green.

Same plant, a few years older. Gorgeous little yellow flowers--and lots of pointy thorns. Pretty now, but you can't walk through a bunch of these bushes without a long-sleeved jacket and pants for protection against scratches.

It's not all about color either. These are Jack in the Pulpits. Another New Jersey native, these don't bloom until they are several years old.

I am such a fan of ferns. I love how they unfurl in the spring. Along with the Jack in the Pulpits, I have transplanted several ferns to my front yard, in an attempt to include native plants in my landscape beds. It looks like they're coming up this year, which makes me quite happy.

Flowering trees also make an appearance in the woods. Here a native sweet crabapple blooms. I like seeing these in the woods and knowing they provide an early source of pollen for bees and fruit for birds and squirrels later in the season.

I think my favorite wildflowers are spring beauties. Each year, more grow in our woods, adding lovely pink accents throughout the forest flower. I've tried to transplant these to our front yard beds as well, with limited success.

A closer view of spring beauties. They seem to have a color range, with some featuring a showier, more vibrant pink.

Since the dogs aren't with me when I take my photo tours of the woods, there is always some kind of welcoming committee waiting for me at the gate when I come back.  And usually, hoping that they get to come with me next time.

At the gate: Lilah, Jasper and Tucker waiting for my return from the woods.

In my next post, I'll feature some of the wildlife I encounter on walks in the forest. While there are plenty of nocturnal creatures that I'm not expert enough to capture in a photograph (opossums, raccoons, flying squirrels, skunks and owls to name a few) and other animals who are a little shy (such as foxes), there are still plenty to see.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Squirreling it Away

My family room features several large windows that overlook a stone patio and a shade garden. Hanging throughout the garden are a few bird feeders. Well, more than a few. Actually, more than a dozen.

Athena looks out the family room window.

I love watching birds at my feeders. It's mesmerizing and fascinating. In a post a few months ago, I included quite a few photos of some of the different birds that come and feast.

But it's not just avian critters that partake of the lovely buffet I lay out daily. There are a few uninvited guests.


Pondering which feeder to plunder.

And no, they are not on the guest list, but somehow they get past the bouncers at the...well, maybe that's the problem. There is no door to my backyard. Though, even if there were, I am sure squirrels would find a way over or around it.  And while my dogs could be qualified as bouncers (particularly Jasper and Tucker, who can be very Bouncy), they are not on Outside Duty all the time.

And thus Squirrels are crashing the party.

Decidedly NOT squirrel proof, this is a favored feeder for the non-feathered interlopers.

Not that I mind them that much. They are kinda cute. Particularly when they sit on their hind legs, holding their little paws in front of them and ask, "What are you looking at? And can you bring out some more sunflower seeds? You're running low."

Squirrel on the window feeder: "You're running low on seeds here. Tell management we need a refill."

I just wish they would be better at sharing. And they scare away many of my feathered friends. Though I have found that if I add a special hot sauce to the bird seed, the squirrels lose some of their desire for the treated food.

The little bushy-tailed rodents do provide endless entertainment for my furry family members. For the dogs, squirrels are just irresistibly chaseable. And I'm sure the cats would chase them, too, if they were allowed Outside.

Making a quick exit along the fence. As soon as the squirrels hear the dogs coming outside, they beat a hasty retreat.

But even if you can't chase 'em, you can watch 'em. And I have set up my family room with a bench seat right in front the windows that overlook my garden and feeders. I even have a few feeders stuck right on the windows, for an up-close and personal view of the brave birds that stop to eat there.

I picked up this cool lantern at an estate sale, and was about to put the candle inside when I came up with the brilliant idea of putting bird seed in instead. Then the birds could get in, but the squirrels...nevermind.

Dawn and Athena love the bench, and spend many hours watching Kitty TV, which I'm sure they believe is tuned to their favorite channel of Birds and Squirrels--and Chipmunks--simply because they are Cats Who Must Be Served.

Benched: Athena and Dawn watchin' Birdies and Squirrels.

Athena will Hunt the Birds and Squirrels she sees. Back when I still had crosspieces on the windows, Athena would leap up at the Birds--or Squirrels--on the window feeders, and hang on with her claws until they flew or jumped away. Usually Birds startle and flap away in a satisfying swirl of feathered fury.  But Squirrels learned very quickly that the pounce was ineffective and would ignore her, except perhaps to stop eating and stare back at her. "You lookin' at me? You lookin' at ME?" Athena would drop from her hanging position in disgust.

Athena has just leaped up to scare away the Squirrel on a window feeder, and is hanging on the cross pieces. Tucker would love to do the same. Lilah is just watchin'.

And I'm still trying to decide if it's sad or humorous as Athena still leaps at birds and squirrels even after I removed the crosspieces. Of course, there is nothing to hang onto, and after she leaps up to the feeders, she slides down the window in a cartoonish whoosh.

Actually, I decided; it is humorous.

Lilah also likes to watch the Birds and Squirrels. She'll chase them when she's Outside, but when she's in the house, she knows there's no way to actually Get the Squirrels, so it isn't worth the effort to jump at them or bark at them.

However, that is a lesson that is lost on her brothers. Jasper and Tucker really Want Those Squirrels. And they both Know they Could Get Them. They Could. So they have to Bark at them. Because there are Squirrels. And they're Out there. Being all Squirrelly.

The two boys can get themselves quite riled. Which sends the cats running. Hilarity ensues.

Well, actually, not. Usually just a lot of noisy barks and woofs and a howl or two, cats zooming underfoot to get away from the commotion, and me running into the family room to prevent windows from breaking, as the dogs will often jump at the glass in their efforts to Get the Squirrels.

I am working with them to tone down the reaction to Squirrels Outside.

The operative word in the previous sentence: "working."

All three dogs in Squirrel-watching positions. Jasper is a little too big to sit on the bench, but he can see over top of it quite well.

When Tucker is at Camp Bow Wow, and therefore not around to egg Jasper on, the excitement level is a little lower--as in, I'm not as afraid he's going to crash through the window. But he does make it clear that he is on the wrong side of the glass barrier.  In the short video (only 50 seconds) below, you can hear Jasper's commentary about the squirrels he sees. Make sure you have sound on when you watch it, because the fun is in Jasper's discourse.

Oh, and I've added subtitles for those who don't speak Dog.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Springing into Action

Well, that wasn't much of a winter.

We had maybe one serious snowfall--other than the infamous branch-breaking snow last October. (If you're interested, check out my two posts from last year: 'Snow Kidding and Snow. Fall.)

And we had very few days where the temperature dipped below freezing.

Not that I'm complaining. I'm not much of a fan of cold weather.

But all that warm and unseasonable weather has messed with Mother Nature's clock. Here in New Jersey, everything is about two weeks ahead of itself. Plants are blooming early. Spring is popping out all over, and way too soon.

Bloomin' Crazy
Though you may not have heard of New Jersey's Cherry Blossom Festival, there's one every year at Branch Brook Park in Newark; the park features 4300 cherry trees, 600 more than Washington D.C. This year, organizers were worried that the trees would be finished blooming before the festival even began. (Though they made sure everyone knew there were enough late bloomers that there would still be some blossoms to see.) They're talking about moving next year's festival up by a week or two.

Not that I'm complaining. I love seeing the first touches of green, telling me warm weather, flowers, hummingbirds and butterflies are on their way. But there's a cost--or at least a risk.

You'd think that warm weather is great for our friends the honeybees. But apparently if it doesn't get cold and stay cold, the bees stay active. And when they stay active, they eat. And they didn't really plan on eating all through the winter. So apparently, many honeybee hives have been lost as the poor litttle pollinators starved to death when they ran out of food. 

And on top of that, last week, we had a hard frost, a killing frost, that could have decimated the orchards of the Garden State. And all those early buds and leaves could have left us gardeners with blossom-less bushes, or worse, dead plants.

So in addition to figuring out how to protect my tender spring shoots from rampaging dog paws, I had to figure out how to protect my early rising plants and leaves.

Not that I'm complaining. Sometimes the fun of being a gardener is taking on the challenges thrown at you, and even sometimes succeeding.

Spring Preview
Below are some pictures from my early spring garden; here's hoping everything survived the hard frost of last week--and the few cold nights they're predicting for this week.

Hellebores: a recent discovery, these have quickly become favorites of mine. They are the very first to bloom, they don't care about the cold, they love shade, and the best part: they are absolutely deer proof!

Crocus are another favorite, as they bloom early, creating small spots of color on the ground. On a warm day, the first honeybee of the season came by for a nibble. I'm happy to see him, and hope he eats his fill.

Running through my crocus, Jasper demonstrates why I've had to be creative in protecting my plant from marauding paws.

In addition to the stick fence I have around my perennial garden, I also put up these (admittedly ugly) wire barriers throughout my garden beds. They create a series of obstacles that make it less fun for dogs to barrel through. It seems to be working.

Forsythia: supposedly deer resistant, but not in my neighborhood. Here it is deer candy. I use a special minty anti-deer spray that seems to hold them off--as long as I spray often during the spring.

Lilah traipses by grape hyacinths and daffodils. The rock border is another arrow in my quiver of tricks to protect my plants from pups. The dogs jump over the small barrier, and go right over the plants. Susan: 1, Dogs: 0. Usually. Except when there is a particularly intense chase. Or a squirrel. Then, all bets are off.

The magnolia, in full bloom, adds a touch of early color to my home.

I love the simple perfection of a single magnolia blossom.

I have several varieties of hosta in the shadier parts of my garden. Hostas only were able to join my garden when we put up a deer fence.

The leaves of bleeding hearts capture droplets. Sometimes I'm amazed at how the structures of leaves on so many plants come up with different solutions to gather and flow water.

Preparing for the freeze, my garden looked like a dumping ground. Under those garbage bags, tiny sproutlings were huddled, hoping to use the earth's warmth to avoid the killing frost.

While I think most of my plants survived, many were damaged. Here, black leaves signal cell death on one of my hydrangeas.

This is the second time I've tried Jacob's Ladder. Yet the first time it came back. So I'm hoping it survives.

I'm a big fan of vines like the clematis shown here, and honeysuckle. I've been training several varieties to climb the deer fence. That said, I try not to plant too many things right next to it; if I leave a trail for the dogs to run along, they're less apt to charge through the center of my garden bed. Usually, the only reason they're in the garden is because there's a Deer or a Squirrel on the Other Side of the Fence and it Must Be Attended To. The path allows for that.

A variety of honeysuckle, about to bloom. This one features gorgeous pinky orange blossoms.

Virginia Bluebells, a New Jersey native. I've lost these nearly every year--to overly aggressive landscapers. This year, Brian (and my daughter's boyfriend Luke) did the spring cleanup and the result is the bluebell display I've always wanted.

Bleeding Hearts in my front yard are already setting up blooms. These have to be sprayed to prevent deer nibbling as well.

There are several varieties of ferns in my front yard. They have a unique way of curling up out of the ground.

The redbud is unusual in that the flowers bloom directly off the trunks and stems; in full blossom, the tree is limned in color.

And of course, my own weeping cherry tree puts on an early spring show.