Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Zoo

The Dutch are known for many things: wooden shoes, windmills, water management, and weird food. It's a shame that they're not known for their zoos, as well.

Today, being one of those rare days when I ran out of things that I have to do so I could start doing things that I want to do, I decided to go to the Burgers Zoo in the next city over (Arnhem) and see if it was really worth the extortionist price of admission, which was advertised on their website as €18.50, but €20 if you pay with your PIN. Needless to say, I made sure to have a €20 bill on hand, and some cash. There's one universal feature of zoos, and that is that they will gouge you till you're sausage meat for concessions. Admittedly, I could have bought my own water and snacks, but that would require that I lug around a liter of water on top of my DSLR, lenses, and book (for the train ride), and secondly, it would look Very Dutch, and not in a good way.

The other thing is, I hadn't expected to stay there as long as I did.

Because the zoo is HUGE. As in, HOLY CRAP HOW DOES THIS ALL FIT INTO THE COUNTRY huge. The main attaction is probably the "safari", which is a small collection of ungulates, a pride of lions, and a cheetah--but it sounds exotic so everybody (myself included) goes to see what it's all about. They have about 7 species of antelope, on top of the usual (giraffes, zebras), and something like 3-4 rhinocerous. The pride of lions, interestingly was the most crowded, beating out the cheetah easily. It was probably still cool enough for them to be active.

Once you get through the gate, most people, like marbles, tend downhill. Downhill leads you to the Bush/Ocean Safari/Desert complex, which is an enormous building that houses a jungle (for some reason called "bush" in the Netherlands and always makes me giggle on the inside a little) full of free-flying birds, with tanks carved into the rocks for exhibits like caimans and turtles. It's hot, and humid, and there are far more paths through the place than you'd think, not only because they go through gateways and wind into caves, but they also go up and down, and they do not re-join the main one, if there is such a thing.

At some point, you are given a choice: Ocean Safari, or Desert. The Desert exhibit is another huge labyrinth, although there was a little method to the madness in the sense that there was actually a direction to follow. First, you go underground, through a blessedly-air-conditioned tunnel that just begs for a good round of paintball or laser-tag. There are tunnels to crawl through and columns shaped like stalagmites to hide behind. And then you enter the Desert, which is just like the Bush exhibit, except that rather than jungle you have cacti, but you still have free-flying birds. Not as many, but they did have turkey vultures that would occasionally do a loop. There was also an exhibit of mountain goat. Roadrunners, and indigo buntings, were also there--words cannot express the irony that I, who come from the US, saw these birds for the first time in the Netherlands.

After the Desert exhibit you can partake of all of thei exotic--and not-so-exotic--birds. I for one found it especially amusing that the cardinal, that bright red bird of Christmas, is considered an attraction. But for the most part, their collection of passerines is eclectic and huge. And I, being a bird lover, was in seventh heaven.

There is also an aquarium, which is also not anything to write home about, seeing as every single one of the exhibits contains the exact same kinds of fish. I don't know about you, but there are only so many clownfish I can stand to look at before I get bored out of my mind. I can't fault them for trying, but I really wish they'd have done something better with the space.

But perhaps the best part of the trip was how the exhibits were arranged. This photo, for instance, is only slightly-cropped, taken with a 105 mm lens:

Not only are the spaces HUGE, they're also 75% surrounded by faux-rocks and plants, so that you get to feel like you're actually peeping through to see the animal in its natural habitat. For many of the large-animal exhibits, the only place to view them was from an enclosed viewing platform, which is actually pretty neat because a) the animals aren't nearly so stressed from being out on display all day, and b) little screaming whining kids don't bother the animals.

The Burger Zoo isn't as great as, say, the Smithsonian zoo. I don't think anything can trump the Smithsonian, but then again, I don't think anybody else has anything approaching half the budget for the Smithsonian. But I'm afraid I have to say it's tons better than the Philadelphia Zoo. Even without the lorikeets.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Making do, or "How to get arrested for animal abuse"

If we want to begin at the very beginning, then this story begins four years ago, when I lived in Philadelphia and found a kitten. The exact date was November 26, 2006, which I remember only because someone tried to scam me out of $400 in phony medical bills that were allegedly accrued on that date--as if medical bills in the US were ever that low, but that's another rant. Said kitten was a black kitten with a single white whisker, and I smuggled it onto the subway in my tote bag (which she then proceeded to piss and crap all over) and home to my apartment.

Meet Shadow:

Anyway, after spending $100 for the first vet check-up--during which she obligingly provided a perfectly fresh and stinky stool sample--I couldn't very well justify leaving her at the Humane Society or the SPCA or the Morris Animal Shelter. Therefore, I decided to keep her, and take on all of the responsibilities that a good cat owner takes on, which included adopting a second black cat.

Actually I hadn't wanted to adopt the Tweeb. At least, I didn't really want a second black cat, and one that was so stringy and mangy, not to mention completely broken and OLD (she was at least six), didn't exactly appeal to me. But the rescue assured me that she would get along quite well with a young and boisterous catten, and that she was a feisty old gal who could hold her own. After some thought, I decided to give the Tweeb a shot. So S brought her to my place, whereupon she immediately hid in my closet and refused to come out for two days. Three weeks later, the vet diagnosed the Tweeb with renal failure, but by that time the little girl had completely won me over so, in exchange for waiving the adoption fee, I got to spend the rest of the Tweeb's life footing her vet bills.

Meet the Tweeb:

So now we push the fast-forward button: Cats get shoved into carriers, driven to the airport, and we board airplanes for Copenhagen and Amsterdam. I get a new job, zip back and forth across the country between Nijmegen and Leiden, and pipette stuff. The Tweeb goes to the vet to get renal panels. And in 2009, I accept a new job in Maastricht.

My boyfriend, K, is a wonderful man. He is also very much a cat person. When I showed up in his apartment he had three massive bowls of chicken in the fridge. He loves the girls just as much as I do, and probably more. We joke about eating them when they scratch the couch, but it's only a joke, since the Tweeb is so scrawny there wouldn't be much to eat, anyway.

So when I got the job in Maastricht, it was assumed that I would take the cats with me. Both of them, since the Tweeb had to be with her mommy (me) and Shadow needed a constant companion to keep her little brain from atrophying. That would leave K WITHOUT A SINGLE KITTY to his name, so after some consideration we decided that we would adopt a third.

Meet FatBoy:

It turns out that life in Maastricht is completely unbearable without K, so I left the girls with K. This has its advantages--less trouble finding an apartment that would welcome cats--and its disadvantages: no kitties during the week for me. But it also means that we don't have to find a new vet for the Tweeb, who during this time has seen the vet three times to monitor the state of her kidneys, and has yowled every step of the way. And this brings us to the events of today:

Now, you, intelligent reader, have no doubt divined by my above paragraph that we don't have a car. A bike would ordinarily suffice to transport things like little kitties, but usually we walk. First of all, 1000 m isn't that far, and secondly, the chances of a disasterous crash are far less. Add to this the fact that K has never in his life been able to keep a bike for longer than 6 months without it being stolen, and that my bike currently resides in Maastricht, and you begin to understand the difficulties involved in transporting three kitties 1 km to see the vet: Shadow, because she needed her shots; the Tweeb, for her renal panel; and Leto, because K suspected he had arthritis and wanted the vet to look at it.

One kilometer isn't that far if you have one cat, but when you have three, you need to change tactics. To whit, build a Stargate, or bribe the vet to make a home visit, or procure the vaccines illegally off the Internet and hope they're more potent than salt water. Some way, in other words, to get these

1 km through urban Nijmegen to the vet.

After much pondering, we hit upon a brilliant idea: a kitty stroller! You might think the Dutch are too pragmatic for this kind of extravagance, and for the most part, you would be correct. But any culture which keeps cats for pets has its fair share of crazy cat people, and crazy cat people create a demand for this kind of thing, if only to take their cats to the vet.

So we set off to the Windmill, which I will treat as a proper noun because it is the only windmill in the whole of Nijmegen. Said Windmill has a pretty big, at least by Dutch standards, pet shop in front of it. I'd seen a kitty stroller before--I was sure they'd have one now, since, as I said before, the Dutch are too pragmatic to buy such a thing.

But oh woe woe, was I wrong! There was no kitty stroller. The Windmill offered to order one for us, but we needed one today. So with sad faces, we made our way home. K decided to stop by the Blokker, because he needed new ink for his inkjet...

And that was where we had the brilliant idea of buying a shopper. One of these:

The hallmark of little-old-lady-hood in the Netherlands. You will never see one in use by a man, nor by anybody less than 55 years of age. It is the demarcation of elderly woman--you might be 80 but if you don't use a shopper when you do your groceries you're not "old".

This, then, is what we ended up pushing to the vet's:


It was a good deal trickier than it might seem. Every little bump made the front wheels threaten to fold under, to the consternation of the kitties loaded up on it. And plus we live on the third floor of the complex, which means stairs to negotiate. It was definitely NOT a one-man job, getting the kitty tower to the vet, and back again.

And this is without the stress of hearing FatBoy scream--quite literally scream--with terror. I don't know what kind of experience he's had with carriers in his day, but I'm pretty sure that today's excursion didn't help his previous impressions any. After a little while he stopped screaming, but he did let out a choir of melancholy yowls--I am fairly certain that more than one person wanted to ask us what we were doing to those poor cats. Because, even though Shadow and the Tweeb were silent, he was making enough noise for five cats.

The vet visit was uneventful. FatBoy was, as his monniker suggests, pronounced fat. The Tweeb got her blood drawn, and Shadow was praised to the heavens for being such a perfect cat (she really is a perfect cat, calm, quiet, and pretty). All three cats had ear mites, so we got a vial of eardrops for them.

When we got home we let the kitties out and they promptly began sulking in earnest, except for FatBoy, who'd not only peed all over the cage but also laid down an impressive turd in the corner of his hated carrier. And then we all had a good stiff drink.

*I'm quite aware that there aren't any cats in the carriers. The reason for this is that when the cats were in it I didn't want to stop and take photos, owing to FatBoy's panic and the stress it was causing the girls. So after we got home (and after we cleaned out the turd) I reassembled the tower for this shot.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Benign neglect

I've been neglecting this blog for almost two months. I shouldn't, I know--and it's not because my life is too boring to write about, because it isn't. Nor is it because I don't have anything to say, because I do.

I've started keeping a journal--a longhand one, one that's written in a rather nicely-bound journal that used to have an elastic band holding it shut. I'm not so childish as to procure a lock-and-key for it, although I must confess that the thought of having a lock on it is appealing. Not because I have anything overwhelmingly bad or private to write about, or anything to hide (once again, I apologize for being quite possibly one of the most boring people on the planet). But, like an occasional marshmallow-binge, it's one of those very childish indulgences that remind you of just how happy the little things in life can make you.

One of the odd Americanisms that have made it back across the pond is the phenomenom of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies. Stores will have Easter eggs and Easter-themed candy--and surprise of all surprises, they are not in the guise of Jesus dying on the cross and then rising from the dead. Which you'd kind of expect from a nation as emotionally crippled by Calvinism as the Netherlands.

But no, the Easter candy is cute, teaming with bunnies and baby chicks. Bite-sized chocolate Easter eggs are especially popular. Less popular are marshmallows, commonly known as spek, which also happens to be the Dutch word for "bacon" and if you append "koek" onto it, it refers to a cake. This is because spek does not refer to the actual thing, but the description, and marshmallows in the Netherlands are, in fact, striped. Like bacon. And the cake.

But anyway: The point is that I am keeping a written journal. It's mostly a way to get things organized into my head, or rather, get better at organizing things in my head. I've been doing this for three months now, and it's actually pretty amazing what comes out of your head when you sit down with a pen and paper. Even the most boring of days (like yesterday) has some interesting little facet to it that you don't really think of when someone asks you "What happened today?"

In other words: I'm going to get back to maintaining this blog. Hopefully things will be a bit more coherent now that I'm writing again.