A journey discovering the depths of empathy and the meaning of compassion

55. Having the Town of our Lives (08/2012)

A recent national competition for popular ‘town of the year’ nearly became Prince Albert. The criterion of votes delivered, via (rigged) text messages still failed to land us in plum position, giving all a chance to reflect on what characteristics, features and attributes may actually constitute a town worthy of such a lofty accolade.

The given setting is undeniably picturesque (from almost all angles) taking in mountains, valleys and open spaces. Diverse architecture ranges from exquisite churches, beautifully restored period houses to plucky brakdak structures, and shack bleak. The streets are all lined with trees towering over broad, shaded sidewalks with wheelchair access, benches, and fountains. Interesting shops beckon. Restaurants offer meals to suit most tastes. Other facilities are exemplary.

How would we dream a town worthy of taking first prize, ensuring everybody’s blessing: one heart one vote for the good life?

The chosen one at the helm casts his ballot. Those presiding, content with their positions of power prevail. For all deployed by the state this life is bliss. Private businesses, companies, and incomes create a life of ease. Temporary rich in gabled houses gamble graciously, coiffed bohemians lounging in quaint cottages token, writers in seclusion take note, artists on retreat make their mark, citizens residing in RDP housing have been blessed, and extended families crammed in corrugated iron boxes are content to have a sometimes blazing sometimes icy veneer hanging over their heads.

Children have an excuse to send lots of sms’s. They are loved, entertained, fed at school, at home, and nurtured by a kind participatory community in the understanding that we are all responsible for the wellbeing of our enchanting youth, knowing that our schools deliver the finest education possible because children are our future.

Dogs, our friends, wag their tails incessantly in agreement, neither hungry nor thirsty. There is always shade or a warm and cosy bed. They are kept safe within gardens free of chains or wires. Responsible owners ensure their canine companions are sterilized, regularly vaccinated and dewormed, and give them unbounded affection.

Cats purr with pride because now they can continue to do exactly as they please.

Pigs plug PA because they can ramble freely on range, with access to one another, and mud baths, fresh food and water ad lib, wandering through cool glades in family groups, rooting for tasty treasures, grunting among themselves all day long.

Sheep bleat in unison given freedom to roam, infusing their muscles with a vast array of aromatic herbs. They can rest assured that committed shepherds are keeping a watch for their safety.

Chickens cooped in previous lives pluck up courage to flap their wings, run around scratching in the earth, only coming home to roost.

The visiting goose lays her golden eggs in many a hand woven basket.

Wildlife outlaws are included for consideration without fear of annihilation, welcomed in as next of kin: Leopards leap for joy of joining the lark; baboons bark and shout, as they’re no longer left out; from the cold caracul clap claws while pressing their paws; curious Kudu prance, abandoning the merry dance, jackals joke and laugh at last, forgetting the miseries of the past. Tortoises crossing the road can relax, knowing that cars will stop in their tracks. Raptors return as we all start to learn that even the disaffected are deeply connected. For our best overall health follows this unprecedented wealth.

Our energy is harnessed from wind and sun. Mountain water is channeled to where it is most needed in gardens and fields where abundant food is grown to satisfy the needs of all human and non-human residents.

We’ve abolished conflict with each other and the natural world. Focusing on inclusivity and recognizing everyone’s needs, people share and care, actively cultivating a sense of harmony.

The town is a winner if you want it!



54. Truth or Consequences (04/2012)

Places often bring to mind vivid associations: New York proclaims the Statue of Liberty, London chimes Big Ben, Paris has the chic Eifel Tower, Sydney sings its Opera House, Cairo’s pyramids prevail, Milan favours fashion, Buenos Aires oozes tango, Fukushima our fulminating destiny, Guantanamo Bay’s torment, Auschwitz – gas chambers shame, and Prince Albert gets lumped with a gin trap factory.

Farmers in the Karoo and other parts of South Africa claim they are losing more livestock than ever before (up to 90% of lambs) to predators, mainly jackals, but also to lynx, leopard, foxes, feral dogs, humans and other primates. The increase has been attributed to a rise in the number of game and hobby farms (safe havens for jackals), and the current trend of bigger farms supporting more sheep under less supervision. Chronic environmental degradation due to overgrazing means that for farm sizes to be viable they have had to expand over the past two decades from an average of 2000ha to 15 000 ha – the situation is worsening.

An estimated 5000 animals are killed and maimed daily by predators: some die quickly while others endure prolonged suffering. These numbers are NOT verified by any independent organization, which is unfortunate as farmers have a vested interest in inflating the numbers.

But the suffering of animals is not due to predators alone: lambs are also routinely mutilated by farmers when they cut off their tails and testicles without anaesthetic, or induce gangrene by using elastrators. Sheep are dispatched en masse for journeys to abattoirs where they are slaughtered to provide meat and wool merely to satisfy unnecessary human desires.

Experts in lethal predator management maintain that effective flock protection involves predator elimination using a combination of methods that include non-selective, inhumane gin traps and illegal poisoned bait, destroying pups from lairs, and hunting (preferred). The agony experienced by these animals while they die is deemed necessary because of the alleged losses and suffering inflicted on stock. The efficacy of these methods and the number of non-target fatalities (up to 90% of all animals caught in traps) is apparently directly related to the level of expertise of the trapper, which is highly variable.

Experts in non-lethal predator control maintain that effective flock protection involves prevention of predator attacks by applying a combination of methods that include the use of donkeys, alpacas, ostriches, and ultrasound deterrents, livestock guardian dogs, kraaling at night, keeping ewes with lambs close to home, and shepherding. The efficacy of these methods is directly related to the level of expertise of the manager, which is highly variable.

The rate of jackal population growth is directly related to food availability, and when threatened, they start to multiply faster by breeding at a younger age and producing larger litters. Evidently, older jackals are responsible for most sheep deaths. They have learnt to avoid traps and poison, while younger jackals that aren’t the main culprits succumb. Among jackal there are some individuals that mainly hunt while others feed on carrion. Poisoned baits therefore select for preservation of the hunters. Jackals mate for life, and form strong family bonds. Animal communicators convey that jackals are feeling persecuted and marginalized, saddened by human prejudice and aggression towards them. Their natural prey has diminished on agricultural land. They cannot fulfill their God-given right to raise even one generation of young unhindered.

Recognised conservation groups (such as EWT and Cape Nature) promote a systems approach to the predator problem that, they claim, is holistic and sustainable in the long-term. They emphasize good agricultural practice where the focus on animal husbandry will ultimately create a stable population of predators. Specific problem predators should be identified and dealt with using methods that are humane, selective, ecologically sound, and conducted within a legal framework.

Public opinion is 99% against the use of lethal predator control.
Public concern over lethal predator control stems from the abhorrence of barbaric ways of killing animals, and the threat to non-target innocents, endangered wildlife, and pets. Therefore the use of gin traps and poison has been banned in more than 90 countries worldwide.
Public behaviour is 99% in favour of maintaining their addiction to Karoo lamb chops.

Humans are able to satisfy all their nutritional needs from plants alone. The consumption of animal products causes cruelty at production level, environmental degradation, global warming, and is now known to have deleterious effects on health.

Nobody disagrees with the notion that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on an animal. We can forgive almost anything but we can’t forgive intentionally harming animals without there being very good reason.

The way we consider animals and the environment has evolved, and agricultural practice needs to keep pace with modern thinking. One way to create a more caring society is for us all to strive for non-violence towards animals and people. Once we realize that every living creature has inherent value (deep ecology principles) then our consciousness shifts to embrace the qualities of compassion and empathy for all life and we can truly understand what it means to love.

Prince Albert Shepherding Project:

If the ultimate solution lies in the perfection of holistic farm management, then the concept of shepherding can be modified to suit modern farming systems that need to become ‘greener’ and diversified to remain sustainable. Farmers are addressing the issue of ‘enhancing the community’s ability to create enterprises’, and tapping into tourism which has been identified as a ‘key economic activity’, and if handled wisely can help to support farming ventures.

According to our town’s IDP ‘Agriculture was traditionally the cornerstone of the economy of Prince Albert, but tourism is now one of the fastest growing sectors of our region’ and ‘one weakness is the lack of adventure activities’. Extensive farming is in reality becoming unsustainable. So the agricultural sector clearly has to think up innovative ways of capitalizing on the rise in tourism. It makes sense to encourage tourists to support ecologically sound farming systems. It also follows that the consumer will also support humane farming if given the option. Prominent retailers will pay a premium for ethically raised livestock products.

The Sheepherders Guild of Prince Albert is designing a pilot shepherding project to be conducted on selected farms. Shepherds will receive training in animal husbandry, diseases, first aid, the environment and its plants and animals, and as guides. The project will also include bringing tourism into the open spaces of the Karoo. A core group of experienced shepherds will later be able to provide a guaranteed service to the farmer on a contract basis with success based incentives. Farmers and interested parties are invited to comment or offer expertise to help develop this proactive community initiative.

53. In The Can Out The Can (03/2012)

After years of confinement, a group of Chacma baboons used for research will be relocated to a sanctuary where they will remain for the rest of their natural lives. Deprived of meaningful social interaction, these sentient beings had been randomly captured in their home terrain and imprisoned for academic research. The baboons were held in solitary conditions (as this was more practical for management) for useless experimentation and research in humans. Non-human primates are not good models for human disease: Dated public information about HIV obtained from studies of the disease in Chimpanzees conducted elsewhere in the 90’s had already been declared to have no prediction value for humans, whilst advances in alternatives to animal organs are being made all the time. Prosthetic valves have been almost perfected in human cardiac surgery for some time now. The establishment considered the need, expense, and cruelty involved was justified for the betterment of man, so worthy of preserving.

Plain observation reveals even to a child of our species the sensitive nature of our distant cousins, also primates, the baboons. Fortunately in our remote neighbourhood there are still troops of resident baboons to be seen regularly at close range: Beautiful, easily make us laugh, inspire respect and admiration, perfect little anatomies – miniatures of ourselves but phenomenally strong. We share senses; mannerisms; habits; expressions of hunger, thirst, love, hate, jealousy, joy, sex… thoughts even. It is surprising that they don’t shun us, but they are too much like us: bold, opportunistic, forgiving, curious, sociable, and ready to engage. And if there is a pie going they want their piece of it!

We can look at them and learn what it means to pass the time leisurely, to play, to work and live together freely….
While you were down the pub, or swimming in the sea, or just watching TV we helped ourselves to the surplus crops and the odd lamb chop; trashed a few rows of mielies, while you were away. We figured it was there for the taking. Such excess!

Until the late 1970’s it was legal for select human beings to hunt down and kill the San Bushmen variety of Homo sapiens in this country. Eish!

It’s still legal to shoot baboons and many other naturally occurring non-human beings, requiring no proof to be considered vermin. Humans can do anything they please to these sentient creatures, however violent, by way of trapping, torture, leaving them to die in cages or ‘leg hold traps’ in the sun, poisoning, running down with a vehicle with no accountability whatsoever now, on this earth, in this life with its waxing waning conscience.

Save the rare mountain gorilla! There are only a few dozen remaining on a remote slope of a dwindling forest in central Africa. He is so big and handsome, almost human. The great ape must live: He has a right to live! He has a family, emotions, and feelings: It would be unthinkable to shove him in a box and leave him to die, shoot him point blank, slit his throat, hack off a foot or a hand, violate that perfect form… our cousin, the baboons’ cousin, mammal, living creature of this rogue planet.

Is it worth the effort and expense to rehabilitate clearly physically and psychologically damaged primates? They have clung to life thus far against all odds. For each one being alive is the same miracle of existence. They serve as a reminder of an era where humans are learning to care, embrace accountability, and to understand what it means to be alive.

52. Cocktail Hour (02/2012)

All living beings on earth are indigenous to this planet, as far as we know. Despite the prevalence of simpler versions, a popular scientific theory maintains that plant and animal species evolved selectively, adapting to their environments and occupying niches within ecosystems. Most species are area specific, but over time some plants and animals were able to move from one part of the planet to another. Migrating birds, insects, fish, and mammals naturally established themselves elsewhere as either temporary or permanent residents. They inevitably brought plant seeds that grew. Plants also moved abroad by wind or water.

Over the past few centuries, however, humans greatly advanced our own mobility, and also redistributed many species sometimes actively promoting an international pervading presence that also thrives on foreign soil. Many introduced species have proliferated chaotically disrupting the balance of fragile ecosystems. Recently we have become aware of the ensuing havoc, spurring human counter measures to alleviate specific disasters. The backlash has unleashed a rather absurd intellectual obsession with ‘indigenous species’ and a reactive xenophobia. And this is a contentious point because many people voice specific and often irrational ideas about nurturing what is acceptable and what is not. The fact that we even consider this relevance is peculiar to our often specious species for our decisions emanate from extremely limited insight into life on earth.

Locally it is advocated that certain plant and animal species be exterminated when they flourish in already dysfunctional ecosystems even though it is virtually impossible to achieve this in many cases. So blue gums, pine, and oak become loathed and destroyed even in areas where they pose no danger of spreading naturally. And yet it is unquestionably accepted to destroy vast areas of virgin Karoo (including rare species) in order to plant olives, peaches, apricots, plums; grape vines; lucerne; grazing; oats; and vegetables, none of which originate in our country. Overpopulating and destroying the landscape with unsuitable domesticated animals like sheep, goats, cattle, and ostriches is also deemed necessary ostensibly for food security but in reality for profit and pleasure. While naturally occurring resident species such as baboon, jackal, leopard, lynx, otter, porcupine, tortoises, snakes, antelope, birds, and insects are mercilessly annihilated for the same reasons. Even native people who once lived lightly and happily have been lured into enduring a semblance of the destructive exotic model of existence.
Those who actively support the perpetuation of acceptable aliens often denounce other exotic trees, plants, and animals. Plants that may thrive in this environment significantly enhancing it by providing shade, beauty, food and home for wildlife, oxygen, and moisture are senselessly destroyed. Paradoxically it is the indigenous domestic animal varieties that are hardy, disease resistant, and adaptable such as damara sheep, Nguni cattle, and Africanis dogs that are bizarrely shunned.

Selective persecution of certain plants, animals, and indeed other human beings is not an uncommon occurrence in societies past and present and is often associated with conservatism, insecurity, misinformation, and lack of imagination.

Humans have irrevocably altered the harmony that existed on earth before we left the garden. This is part of the process of the growth and decline of earth as a living entity. Life on earth as we know it will disappear in a cloud of dust that will settle, and after a few millennia, new life may emerge as has happened so many times before. Or maybe the end will be an extinguished sun, a huge meteorite, or an all-consuming black hole. But until then lovers will continue to admire Italian cypresses, grow exquisite roses and tomatoes, keep pets, and actively conserve the myriad indigenous plant and animal life of the Karoo.

51. Relative Might (01/2012)

Africa at its apparent darkest holds fear and excitement in the minds of many visitors (and residents) who entertain ominous dread of powerful and indeed potentially dangerous animals. But often it’s only during a visit that people discover the big five or ten odd remaining trophies kept safe and vulnerable while it is the seemingly insignificant insects, arachnids, bacteria, and viruses that wield the greatest power over human and other animal life.

Susceptibility holds the key to understanding the apparent weakness that allow victims to succumb to detrimental forces in nature. Optimal health is a complex balance between physical vigour, mental alertness, and emotional stability. These aspects of living creatures are affected by nutrition, the environment, and state of mind, which therefore directly affect the individual’s ability to avoid, resist, or overcome negative influences.

The idea of large predators tends to stimulate deeply instinctive fantasies about dominance and submission in the human psyche. Although these days The King of beasts is raised as a mere pale pussy cat waiting his turn to be propped up on a conveniently located pedestal in the veld, not to be respected or admired, but for assassination at point blank range, for pleasure. He is stripped of his attire, and crucified inert, only to be mocked and belittled as part of a puerile exhibitionist exercise in jock satisfaction.

The general public clearly prefers luscious lamb to the notion of preserving Panthera pardus. A succulent chop on a plate is apparently much more desirable than allowing lurking leopards the luxury of peaceful existence. This is evident in the vast ovine flocks that continue to destroy our landscape, the demise of the awesome cats and the population explosion of lessor predators such as jackals and lynx.

Now the real menace is the seemingly mundane odd little spider with its lethal bite, or bats in the roofs that harbour the rabies virus, or wild birds ‘spreading’ avian flu. Scorpions have an affinity for cotton sheets and smelly shoes, sneaking into their depths unnoticed until somewhat alarmingly unexpected contact. Certain mosquitoes can transmit one of the greatest global killer diseases known to man. Smaller still are gnats that can pass on myriad deadly diseases to animals such as Rift Valley Fever, which can also strike humans.

Particularly odious to nouveau rural sensibilities are ticks of which there are twenty six species in South Africa. If there is anything good to say about ticks it is that they are a source of food for some of our beautiful wild birds. Some species are capable of transmitting serious protozoal and rickettsial diseases to cows, sheep, horses, birds, cats, dogs, and man. Of current local interest is one rare species of tick exhibiting beautiful markings, large mouthparts and stripy legs that secretes a cytotoxic poison into the flesh where it bites. The toxic saliva causes necrosis of large areas of skin in dogs, paralysis in sheep, and transmits the virus that causes Congo Fever in humans (although this has never been confirmed locally!). Hyalomma spp (bontpoot or stripy legged tick) is found in the Prince Albert area and the number of animals bitten appears to be on the increase. Tick bites are best prevented by using an effective topical antiparasitic application. If these ticks are seen on an animal they are best removed by sharp decapitation or smothering with Vaseline rather than pulling as this raises the likelihood of transferring more poison into the bite wound thereby exacerbating the destructive effects. Appropriate professional treatment may need to be administered to alleviate the symptoms.

With greater scientific knowledge and understanding of the natural world we can take appropriate practical steps to limit the effects of undesirable animate attention, but sometimes that still doesn’t satisfy an inexplicable craving for living on the edge.

50. Mayan Meltdown (12/2011)

Within the space of a few decades the status of domestic animals has been denigrated to such an extent that few humans these days truly understand the beauty of the relationships between man and beast.

Man’s best friend emerged willingly over centuries from the wolf living in close proximity to humans eventually becoming tamed, loyal and ready to serve in the transition from pariah to companion. Later different characteristics were manipulated and honed to create breeds that were useful in many ways from herding livestock to tracking criminals, and guiding the blind. Now days although some individual canines are allowed to perform and fulfill their raison d’être, the vast majority are allowed to breed indiscriminately or worse, steered towards the opposite extreme of aesthetic over selection. For some peculiar reason humans tend to shun the healthiest dogs of mixed breed that are so prolific, ending up in shelters, euthanazed en masse daily. The functionally defunct pedigreed breeds that are weakened and disease ridden through inbreeding have become highly prized fashion accessories, indicating the depth of our general concern for life.

Swine also evolved so closely to man that sometimes the two species can barely be told apart. They lived off human waste, literally, which is what aided the tape worm to evolve as a cyst in the muscle of the pig which when eaten by man develops into the segmented worm releasing its egg laden segments in the faeces, only to be ingested by the pig for the cycle to continue. Although we are very similar creatures in many ways the unfortunate pig has been relegated to a miserable life behind the tightest fitting bars imaginable, by the dominant specie.

Welfare standards during the dubious glory years of equestrian centered progress when horses were used extensively for transport and going into combat hardly bare contemplation and perhaps they are better off in the mechanized era being made to run around in circles, jump over poles, or take extended lessons in the sophistication of restraint.
Bovine herds that once graced the pastures of our beautiful landscape now find themselves in a crowd of complete strangers, separated from their families standing about in vast sunbaked feedlots, growing rapidly on hormones and antibiotics while their dung piles up around them.

The pain of the general depression expressed by our abused domesticated friends is quiet and fearful midst the noise and confidence of modern day consumerism. The misery is carefully hidden from human eyes that have in any case lost the ability to discern suffering. What seems to stimulate temporary joy in the restricted human psyche is the unverified idea of free ranging animals: a dog running(illegally) on the beach, pigs wallowing(unhygienic) in mud, chickens scratching(wastefully) in the forest, cows grazing(uneconomically) in pastures, and horses roaming(irresponsibly) wild and free. But in reality these situations no longer exist on earth as they do in our imagination. We have excluded their natural world from them by preventing access, thereby ending that world as they knew it.

We mask the physical pain of the child, adult, aged, victim, hero, and the seen animal at all costs. We dull our own mental anguish with drugs and alcohol, and television or internet distractions, and forget about the insanity of captivity. We can sink into the bliss of oblivion while 2012 collapses all around us, or wake up to the real possibility of choosing life.

49. Yule-tide tremors (11/2011)

‘Tis the jolly season of kitsch and cliché from fake snow and tinsel to blow by blow accounts of family delights and discord. We find greed and altruism juxtaposed at grassroots generosity, puppies and kittens given as presents for pleasure, dogs and cats abandoned for pleasure; pleasure seekers, makers, givers, and takers upsetting the applecart before the horse while barking up the wrong tree of righteousness.

Some expressions involving animals highlight aspects of gifting under an eagle eye leaving scope for playful dissection if not pulling the wool over your thighs at least giving a bird’s eye skew on things in the somewhat ambiguous seasonal spirit of giving as good as it gets, fake it or weave it into the story you choose to believe. The spotlight falls on what we’ve been waiting for, in all its imagined glory and a flaw that stretches the limits of etiquette. Too much gratitude equates to the lady protesting too much methinks. Rather don’t look that gift horse in the mouth (unless it’s baring its teeth!). Where lies the deceit, gold dust at my feet, and you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Why search afar when the best is so near? ‘Local is lekker’ now ‘imported’ gets the sneer.
While pearls before swine seem hard to decline, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. In retrospect holding back is a family affair as restraint is safer than truth or dare. But nevertheless junk is junk, and will continue to be recycled because real worth is rare as hens’ teeth and a white elephant will remain a myth to be solved by taking its rightful place in the world.

The bearing of the cat that got the cream becomes elevated with livelier and more challenging fare. Her hunted trophy becomes a proud offering and sacrifice: ‘This is what I bring. It has great value for me. And I just know that you’re going to plats for the carcass on your pillow slip!’ If we didn’t try to understand how much it meant to this giver then the gesture would be meaningless, if not annoying. But getting to know the feline species, perhaps experiments in tolerance are his game that also includes clawing, yelling in the night, allergic reactions, playing hard to get, scented effects, hiding when called, very early rising, and fake purr.

One of the keys to happiness is identifying a need in somebody else which helps to hone compassion, awareness, powers of perception, and understanding. Giving a dog a (raw) bone aptly matches great desire with exacting requirements like water for chocolate. Hunger is inevitable even as the lion lies with the lamb in a recurrent, transient truce.
The best kept secrets are a kind of wound up spring, a potential power source for destruction or delight, intensified with time and temptation. They conceal strength, commitment, loyalty, humour, and empathy. Letting the cat out of the bag requires foresight, an immaculate sense of timing for maximum impact or merely fluke now that it has gone.
Hurdles and goals aside, the Capricorn goat leads us into the New Year climbing his awesome mountain of worldly success and material achievement in preparation for the steep descent of inevitable selflessness.

48. Egg on Your Facebook (10/2011)

Feathered friends online also run the risk of becoming a statistic rather than something to crow about. Tainted transactions make awkward meal of the simplest sacrifices.

At the breakfast celebration a unanimous vote of twenty five delighted hands hover in a frozen wave of anticipation, faces drooling at the gastrological connotations of a ‘sunny side up’ choice. A silver wedding anniversary figure demonstrating unflustered support for the expanding factories that incarcerate the estimated 18 million laying hens in South Africa crammed even now into row upon row of cages for their 265 day lives of ‘productivity’. A quarter century vote condoning yolks of cruelty without a moment’s consideration. One, two, three embryos plus more where those came from, nestled among the charred rashers of pig flesh. Two dirty dozen and one cheers for battery hens that supply constant demand for their fragile reproductive treasures, laboured over daily and stolen for frying, baking, scrambling, cracking, cracked – crackpot maybe but this represents serious, illegal cruelty to animals for the sake of profit over nutrition, relished on a vast unchallenged scale over easy.

The same hands rear fancy fowl favourites in the comfort of their own homes wincing at the mere suggestion of pet poultry for the pot, while gnawing on a Kentucky Fried Cruelty drumstick. A free range token gesture appears to placate half-baked protests aimed at commercial hen house horrors.

The story is a familiar one: macerated male chicks; hens three to a foolscap cage excruciatingly debeaked and detoed to prevent cannibalism mania notwithstanding; artificial light forcing increased production; no facility for normal behaviour like perching, preening, or dust bathing; avian flu viruses poised to wipe out the whole lot and the humans too for their part in the barbarism.

Too much of a bad thing doesn’t stop at the egg, which came first in high cholesterol stakes with uncertain detrimental effects on heart and circulatory system health, links to diabetes, and high incidence of food allergies in infants. The effects of antibiotics, hormones, and environmental degradation from the industry are also well documented.

The challenge and solution is to personally demand unequivocally free-range eggs. This accessible and powerful gesture to support sustainable and humane farming is specific and effective. And if the verity of the claim is too vague to ascertain then, one step further, eggs can be conveniently omitted altogether. The alternatives that do the same job cheaper without the cruelty while improving taste and texture are the following:

Firstly you need to determine why your recipe calls for eggs.

If it is for leavening one of the following can be used to replace each good egg:
• ¼ cup of soft parboiled tofu
• ¼ cup apple sauce
• One mashed ripe banana
• 3T pureed dried fruit
• 1T Ground flax seed + 3T water.
The finished product will be light and fluffy.

If it is for binding:
• 2 T cornstarch + 2T water
• 2T potato starch + 2T water
• 2T instant mashed potatoes
• 2t baking powder + 2T water + 1T oil.
The finished product will be dense and thick.
• In custards and quiches each egg can be replaced with ¼ cup soft pureed tofu.
• To replace just egg white use plain agar powder (1T + 1T water whipped chilled then whipped again).

It is not difficult to implement these substitutes with a little imagination once one has taken the decision not to buy into the rotten egg business. Removing the yoke of custom and thinking out of the egg box brings light relief from the tyrannical trappings of tradition and whips up conscientious consumer compassion.

47. The Magic Bones (09/2011)

It is generally accepted that other animals possess a greater sense of hearing than humans do. Strangely the inner workings of sound perception pivot on the functioning of the ‘middle ear ossicles’, hammer, anvil and stirrup, the tiniest bones in the body that hold phenomenal power as the basic hearing apparatus in the ears of mammals. Since ‘everyone hears only what he understands’ then it must surely be true that humans are comparatively lacking in understanding!

Response to sound is not always immediately evident particularly when some animals (and people) exercise selective hearing and I’m thinking specifically of cats and spouses. Informal observations are quite revealing. It can be challenging to identify deafness in animals and babies because of other sensuous compensations. Even our aloof feline friends cannot ignore repeated vocal appeals, acknowledged subtly by a twitch of an ear, blinking, a shift in the angle of the head, or a little flick of the tail.

The sound of dogs’ food bowls touching the floor no matter how softly and regardless of the proximity of interested tummies calls immediate attention. The crackling of certain packaging, clinking chains and other specific, almost imperceptible sounds stimulates startling responses in domestic animals. Distinct alertness is notable in geese who retire to a safety enclosure well away from the house at dusk poised for sound. Their vociferous honking upon hearing the faintest of footsteps approaching at any time is quite staggering.

I’m mortified when I see the animals in my world wince if I carelessly cause a harsh noise to disturb their composure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a human being maintain the elegance and grace of a cat, dog, or even a pig; especially a pig for that matter.

Anyone who has tried to approach animals in the wild will know that it’s virtually impossible to advance in complete silence, as we also make noises that we can’t hear. And yet stealth is developed to a remarkable degree in even the largest animals such as elephants who can walk among tents of sleeping campers quite noiselessly in the depths of the night. The keenness of hearing is linked to the relative quietness of the animal. To our ears a dolphin slips through the water in silence but as their sense of hearing is fourteen times greater than ours it follows that they are privy to many secrets.

Intriguing about the external ears of animals is their ability to move independently of each other and the body, to focus sound waves. Response times leave us lagging behind especially now that technology has slowed down the communication centers in our brains. Consider that an owl reacts to the sound of a mouse scuttling in the grass in 0.01 of a second!

The expression of emotion apart from other body language or sounds is often conveyed through the changing position of the ears. Fear and aggression spring to ears in spectacular fashion in horses and elephants. Embarrassment is almost the only emotion humans involuntarily convey through the rush of blood to these and other parts. Their heightened sense of touch make ears an obvious place to demonstrate affection for dogs, cats, rats, and pigs, but less so for horses. Apparently a lion will be your friend for life if you scratch him behind the ears or remove the thorn from his paw.

Some crazy pharaoh had the idea of inflicting ridicule on some canine strains (still acceptable in some circles) by selecting for extended flap length that has no beneficial effect on hearing, appearance, or health, but imposes a predisposition to lifetimes of pain and discomfort.

Animals seem inherently attuned to sound, attentive. One cannot help but wonder if their need to be heard is as acute as ours, or if amongst each other they also hear but seldom listen.

46. Twitter (08/2011)

Eavesdropping nearly always raises a smile and feelings of frustration from gleaning incomplete information. While overhearing a flock of perched pied starlings chatting all afternoon in the old ash tree I found myself engrossed in their lively conversation that ebbed and flowed mellifluously. Sometimes a single voice stated an opinion, and then another would answer back and perhaps get several responses. At times the party got very excited and started talking all at once until a sharp interjection delivered with an air of authority shut up the whole bunch momentarily. From time to time a few birds would fly off and others arrived. And so it went on for ages: crescendo, decrescendo, forte, pianissimo, solo, ensemble, challenges, retorts, musings, gossip, nit-picking, laughter and tears.

Roberts’ song elucidation for the species ‘skwee-skwee-skwee, skwik, skweer-skweer, skik-skik’, chirrup-chirrup etc. seemed hopelessly inadequate. Ag shame, we poor humans oversimplify our perception of animal communication to the point of embarrassment. The complex array of sounds emanating from these birds, their language, clearly understood amongst them is lost on most of us.

Trying to decipher unfamiliar banter reminds me of a trip to Thailand where I became fascinated with the Thai language. At first the sound of Thai was gobbledygook to me. Later I understood the expressionistic nature of their communication, and that one word could have a dozen meanings depending on the tone used. I gradually became accustomed to the patterns and began to interpret some meaning. It is similar with birdsong and other delicate animal languages. Piet-my-vrou or hadeda may at first sound like they are repeating the same call and yet each rendition varies in barely perceptible ways to us. These subtle variations are the key to overcoming the complexities of talking with other animal species on earth.

Animals don’t just make sounds for the sake of it. Clear communication is always the reason. If most of us couldn’t be bothered to learn another human language, how can we begin to comprehend what the animals are trying to say? When the majority of people don’t know how to listen to others speak in their own tongue how can animals’ voices be heard, let alone understood? It’s not always the words that matter, but the sound of loneliness, joy, enthusiasm, hunger, pain, sadness, or love emanating that remains the same whether you’re a mouse squeaking or Judi Dench reciting Shakespeare.

The legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthūm, also known as the ‘Planet of the East’ became famous for her extended songs that would continue at length, sometimes for hours, often repeating a line up to fifty times, but never in the same way twice. With each reiteration she was able to emphasize different aspects of the poetic line and impart new meaning by altering her voice tone, volume, colour, pitch, or duration of the notes. Much like an olive thrush I singled out in the dawn chorus the other day who made an enchanting, continuously varied evocation of the emerging light.

Beethoven was criticized for including the almost literal sound of a cuckoo in his sixth symphony. But these obvious notes could also just be the key for insights into the myriad harmonies and meanings portrayed in the composition that appeal to the enlightened many, where obscure tunes are appreciated by too few. So when Polly the parrot mimics “Hello!” pathetic as her concession to the lack of human imagination may be, there is poignancy in her timing that may just tweak the consciousness of the guffawing pranksters who believe that animals don’t speak.

And when it seems like there is no audible sound, we still can’t claim that animals are mute because we have forgotten how to fathom those unexclaimed melodies. But we are reminded of their existence by not being able to hear the better part of bat, dolphin, or elephant communication.

Something just occurred to me.