Friday, October 20, 2017
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On Sunday mornings, Hilton Carter’s girlfriend makes herself scarce from their one-bedroom apartment in an old Baltimore mill.

Carter, who is 6-5, bearded and the sort of man who wears a denim shirt and a ball cap with his peach shorts, begins a four-hour grooming ritual.

Not his own, of course. That would be insane.

The hours when others are sipping bottomless mimosas, that’s when Carter, a 37-year-old artist, feeds and inspects and prunes and otherwise tends to the Great Dane of a fern cascading down above his bed. It’s when he “bathes” the tiny air plants perched like tropical bugs on his geometric mirror. This is when he can fuss over the verdant monstera, trademark Swiss-cheese holes in its sprawling leaves, that sways gently in the breeze coming off the Jones Falls River just outside the window.

Hilton Carter, 37, has always enjoyed plants. But his Baltimore apartment now holds 180, and it’s a perfect example of a growing trend.

Hilton Carter, 37, has always enjoyed plants. But his Baltimore apartment now holds 180, and it’s a perfect example of a growing trend.

There are 180 plants here. This means every Sunday, there are yellowed leaves to pluck away and toss. Bugs to keep an eye out for. The great existential mysteries of light and air and sun to consider.

“There’s a lot of expletives flying, all day,” Carter says of his weekend labour. “It’s just, ‘What is happening to you?! You were fine for the last year in this spot!’ It hurts.”

Greenery has been a motif among the achingly hip for at least three years, when blouses flecked with leaves and palm trees and massive birds of paradise first strutted down the runways at Marc Jacobs and Marni, and then floated all the way down to the Gap.

But suddenly, the tropicalia is finding its way indoors. Even in drab gray concrete jungles like Baltimore and New York, young people are turning their apartments into “house jungles.”

Others prefer the term “urban rain forest” or the cutesy “jungalow.” In this aspirational landscape, outlandishly and photographically lush is ideal, and filling your home with plants is “urban wilding.” In less enlightened times, we probably would have just called it “decorating.”

Annie Dornan-Smith, a 22-year-old London-based graphic artist, guesses she may have as many as 50 plants in her flat. “They’re not particularly expensive, and it’s another way to have something to look after,” she muses. This summer, she published “House Jungle,” an illustrated guide to selecting and rearing the ubiquitous architectural plants of this trend: the slender and spiky dracaena and areca palms, the birds of paradise, the lanky snake plants and …

“Fiddle-leaf fig,” offers an employee of Little Leaf, a twee plant and paper shop that opened in the winter in Washington, DC. She nods in the direction of the hot seller, a sprawling bush-like number laden with floaty, almost translucent waxy-green leaves roughly the size of dinner plates.

The fiddle-leaf fig has achieved what is known in the Instagram universe as holy-grail status. But as with Pokémon, the plant-obsessed are collecting them all.

“They’re each your own little baby,” says Joseph Wanek, 31, who lives in a midcentury house in Iowa with his partner, Nick Sellers, and at least 45 plants. “At first Nick was not wanting me to bring them home,” says the prop stylist. “He was saying I was a plant hoarder.”

Nick came around. “It became more and more of an obsession,” the 28-year-old art director confesses.

The buying habits of millennials, naturally, have a way of attracting attention. Shops have become wise to the growing number of novice green thumbs. “This has caught on,” Carter says. “The nurseries have figured this out, the hardware stores have figured this out.”

Hilton Carter’s living room, complete with a tall fiddle-leaf fig lurking in the corner.

Hilton Carter’s living room, complete with a tall fiddle-leaf fig lurking in the corner.

Of course, some people have always had a ficus around the house. But a faddish interest in houseplants in America seems to perennially blossom and then die out.

“One of the first waves of houseplants was after the Industrial Revolution,” says Tovah Martin, author of several books on the subject, including “The Indestructible Houseplant” and “The Unexpected Houseplant.”

People were building and then moving into cities, she says, and they began to want to establish a sense of – forgive us – rootedness.

Henry David Thoreau went the “Walden” route. The less ambitious resigned themselves to growing roses indoors. (Until they realised they couldn’t.)

Martin has a theory about the houseplant revival of 2017.

In the 1970s, there was Watergate and war and turmoil in the Middle East, and housewives hung ivies, pothos and devil’s backbone from their macramé plant hangers. (“My grandma totally had all these plants,” Sellers says.)

“It’s very cyclical,” Martin says. “I think the current cycle has a lot to do with people hunkering down. A houseplant is therapeutic. It gives you something to nurture.”

There are other factors, of course. As with almost everything these days: Instagram.

Go on, search the hashtag #urbanjungle. Or #monsteramonday. Or #plantgang.

“It’s just nice,” says Dornan-Smith, “when you take pictures of your house, and there is this big sculptural plant in the background.”

Carter’s plant-filled account has 33,000 rabid followers (some of whom message him for plant tips, others asking whether they can just come see his urban jungle in person). A popular blog called The Jungalow also showcases the plant-filled life.

Little Leaf opened late last year, in the model of London’s cool-kid plant boutique Geo-Fleur (as seen in Goop) and New York’s online (and now brick-and-mortar) The Sill, whose website proclaims “indoor plants are LITERALLY GOOD FOR YOU.”

“We opened in the dead of winter,” says Little Leaf owner Amanda McClements, and even so, “we had a hard time keeping plants in stock.” When it was barren and cold outside, and green and lush in, “we had so many people say, “I just want to stand here.’ “

But funny thing about the urban jungle. In all its welcoming Insta-loveliness, there hardly ever seems to be a gardening tool or even a stray speck of potting soil in sight, much less a hair spray bottle now repurposed as unfashionable plant mister. No one ever complains about mites. Few mention four-hour watering sessions. Or yellowing leaves or when a beloved plant-baby meets its ugly – literally, ugly! – end.

“We lose, like, 20 a year,” groans Wanek.

“Some are just supposed to die,” Carter says, pragmatically.

Perhaps it’s better to focus on the ‘Gram. Like the account Boys With Plants, which is basically what it sounds like: bougainvillea porn.

Carter is a three-time Boys With Plants, er, boy. When his girlfriend, Fiona, spies him on the account, “she likes to send it to all her girlfriends,” he says.

She’s proud of him, right?

Well, she is, but as for the rest of them …

“I know,” he sighs resignedly, “they’re just making fun of me.”

Washington Post-Bloomberg

Shade gathers from year to year in the garden like the wrinkles on your face, growing more pronounced with time.

Small bushes develop into large shrubs, young patio trees shift from skinny to broad, newly planted trees rise to the rooftops and beyond. This is a direct consequence of our love of plants and is all good.

Jenny Rose Carey in a garden shed at her home in Ambler, Pennsylvania, on May 26, 2017. Carey released a book called ‘Glorious Shade’, with the intention to show others the benefits of planting in shade.

Jenny Rose Carey in a garden shed at her home in Ambler, Pennsylvania, on May 26, 2017. Carey released a book called ‘Glorious Shade’, with the intention to show others the benefits of planting in shade.

Or as horticulturist Jenny Rose Carey puts it: “I love planting little trees and watching them grow.” She has done this over the past 20 years in her 41/2-acre garden in the Philadelphia suburb of Ambler. “As you mature as a gardener, your trees grow along with you, and that’s a nice thing.”

So why are so many people down on shade?

First, because they can’t grow roses or zinnias in the gloom, and for many people a garden must have floral color to count. This is a limited view of the garden, where leaf forms, textures and plant architecture provide much more satisfaction, if only subconsciously. Another argument is that you can’t have a vegetable garden in the shade. This is true, and there is no way around that.

Shade gets the blame when the homeowner wakes up to the fact that the garden is overgrown and dank. This is a product, typically, of folks planting screening trees — especially evergreens — that were always destined to outgrow their allotted space.

But I’m with Carey in her belief that the shade garden is not just all right, and not just an asset now that the heat is upon us, but is actually the best part of the garden. Why?

Artfully planted and groomed, it is the most sheltered and cocooning place to be. The hallmark of the shade garden, she says, is its “intimacy,” which I take as its sense of privacy, of being placed in a serene environment away from the chaos of modern life.

Carey, who is director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s public garden and nursery, Meadowbrook Farm, has written a book addressing the practical aspects of making and keeping a shade garden. It has an appropriately upbeat title, “Glorious Shade.” “I hear so much negative stuff from people about shade, and I’m not a negative gardener. I’m positive.”

After reading her book and visiting her garden (and developing my own shade garden over more than two decades), I wrote a synthesis of Carey’s explorations and my own experiences.

Jenny Rose Carey has placed a stone sink near her outdoor potting benches in her garden in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Jenny Rose Carey has placed a stone sink near her outdoor potting benches in her garden in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Finding Your Shade

Shade occurs when sunlight is blocked — simple enough, except that shade is a moving target.

The sun moves across the sky daily, and seasonally it shifts its duration, height and strength. (Pedants will point out it’s the Earth moving.) In March, a tree offers scant shade; in June, it is a large, living parasol. In the space of five years, an area that is in baking sun can become shaded.

This elusive nature of shade registered with Carey when she saw one of her daughters, as a 2-year-old, try to capture her uncooperative shadow. (Her three daughters are now grown, and one plans a wedding reception in the garden this year.)

In hot climates, many plants do better with a little shade, relieved of the heat and stress of the sun’s rays, but in areas of deep, unremitting shade, the range of plants that will be happy narrows dramatically, so it’s important to gauge the nature of your shade.

Carey deconstructs the catchall label of “partial shade” into something more useful:

Edge shade is found at the boundary of woodland and provides the best of both worlds. Plants such as redbuds, dogwoods and azaleas thrive in such places.

Dappled shade is produced by trees with fine foliage or elevated canopies. Old tulip poplars and oaks are good examples of this. This is a heavenly place for all concerned — lots of light without the searing sunbeams.

Bright shade is found in dark areas that get a lot of reflected light from bodies of water, light-colored walls and windows.

Afternoon shade is found where the shading element is on the western side of things, morning shade when it’s to the east. Although, any area in uninterrupted afternoon sunlight is generally considered to be a sun garden.

The point is that you need to observe light and shade patterns in a given area at different times of day to gauge its shadiness.

Jenny Rose Carey’s landscape is full of places that provide physical and emotional niches to explore and enjoy. ‘I love sharing this garden with people,’ she says. The garden is shown May 26, 2017, in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Jenny Rose Carey’s landscape is full of places that provide physical and emotional niches to explore and enjoy. ‘I love sharing this garden with people,’ she says. The garden is shown May 26, 2017, in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

The Basics of a Shade Garden

Turning a wooded lot into a sweet garden is not just a state of mind; it requires action.

Your plot: Lots with trees tend to be neglected, and neglect leads to the arrival of heavy-duty weeds, particularly invasive vines such as porcelain berry, English ivy, honeysuckle and poison ivy.

“Start by chopping the top growth,” Carey writes in her book, “and then dig up the roots.” Then comes the sterling advice: They may re-sprout; be vigilant.

After you have cleared those (take the usual care with poison ivy), you may find that previous occupants used the woods as a dump. I spent weeks clearing my wooded areas of brush, rubble, rotting firewood and timbers.

You may also want to take down volunteer trees, even non-weedy ones, that have simply produced a thicket. This will open up space and light and make the remaining plants happier. Because she has the room and loves wildlife, Carey has allowed a few dead trees to remain as high stumps, and keeps them for birds as long as the trunks are structurally sound.

Mulch: Mulch retains soil moisture and discourages weeds. Woodlots make their own mulch — leaves — and as they decay, the leaves improve the soil structure and feed beneficial soil life. Fallen leaves are best shredded and then spread carefully on growing beds to avoid smothering plantings. For times when you don’t have enough leaf mold to go around, Carey suggests gathering pine needles, if you have them. If you resort to importing bark or wood mulches, use finely shredded versions around smaller plants, and don’t put down a layer of more than two inches.

Plants: The best mulches are ground covers, which in turn form the basis of layered plant compositions. These strata include bulbs, perennials, spring ephemerals such as trilliums and Virginia bluebells, small-to-large shrubs, understory trees and, finally, the canopy trees that are providing the shade. These plantings peak at different times, but one highlight in Carey’s garden is in mid-spring, where the fresh, bright growth of hostas answers that of the Japanese maples, amid a swirl of delicate pink-flowering dicentras, blue-flowering brunneras and the spotted foliage of the lungworts. (Her book offers plant lists for given conditions.)

Planting in established woodland requires its own skill. You don’t want to smother tree roots with soil or chew them up with digging equipment. The key is to install young plants — perennials as plugs, for example — in the crevices between the tree roots. Carey likes to make a mixture of sand and leaf mold and, if there is room, work it into the planting hole. Small bulbs work well in the tight spaces between tree roots, including such March and April bloomers as chionodoxa, scilla and Iris reticulata.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

You might see the first day of spring as the moment the magnolia blossoms open amid a newly arrived field of crocuses, but our garden plants take a different view. For them, spring isn’t a season but the confluence of phenomena that trigger growth.

Some of the responses have little to do with spring – the daffodil has been growing roots since September, the grape hyacinth of early April sprouted its leaves six months before, the plump terminal bud of the rhododendron has been ages in the making.

Buds break into growth based on whether the parent shrub or tree has received enough of its winter chilling hours along with sufficiently warm temperatures. Because the chilling needs differ by species, spring is a progression of awakenings over several weeks. Already, some plants have met this threshold and, with mild temperatures, are doing their thing.

So what may look like the depth of winter is actually a moment that is fast slipping from our grasp. For those of us who like winter as a period of rest and stillness, I offer this advice: Put down the garden fork for a while, stow the wheelbarrow and just wander about the garden to perceive those precious February moments.

The landscape skews either very large or small in winter. On the macro level, you can see the grand silhouettes of distant old trees, especially when their tracery is revealed before the season’s pale yellow skies. At the other end of the scale, you strain to discern the lengthening of the emerging bulbs one day to the next.

Missing is the great middle ground of the garden, the human-scale spaces that are filled after May with small shrubs, ferns, perennials and grasses. Those beds look deceptively lifeless. Incidentally, this is the only time you should see large areas of mulch, preferably chopped leaves. By early spring, the leaves will be half-rotted and ready to be scratched into perennial beds or dug under annual or vegetable beds before planting. Between mid-May and Halloween, these spaces should be filled with plants. If they’re not, consider more perennials, ground covers, zinnias, lilies, salvias, dahlias – whatever will work in these voids. Late winter is the perfect period to think about what you might plant this spring while you take in the winter garden.

Having fully surveyed my own garden for its hibernal highlights, I dropped by Green Spring Gardens near Alexandria, Virginia knowing that I would find, at the least, some interesting witch hazels in bloom.

One of the showiest is an intermediate variety named Harry, a big shrub with big flowers: The orange-yellow, threadlike petals are at least an inch long, and the established plant here is 10 feet tall and 15 feet across. This may be too big for a small garden, but a real asset if you have the space. If you don’t have the space, you might consider the winsome Luna, which at Green Spring occupies a smaller corner and seems more compact and densely flowered.

In the rock garden, where the heath variety Kramer’s Red is in full red-purple flower, subtler beauty could be found in the way the red-fruited cotoneaster Scarlet Leader veils a stone with its glossy attractive leaves, green in summer but now a red purple. Cotoneaster is a tricky shrub to grow in these parts, so finding a healthy variety has added value. Clearly, the attention to good drainage is key to survivability.

Elsewhere, I found a priceless winter vignette: a colony of giant snowdrops at the flared base of an old, white-speckled sycamore tree. The tree connotes great age but, less obviously, a drift of snowdrops can represent decades of quiet, expansive self-seeding.

The mildness of this mid-Atlantic winter and absence of snow have made it a banner year for snowdrops. Their precociousness and sheer delicacy grow on you, and while I have yet to come down with the fever for pricey cultivars (a malady known as galanthomania), there’s still time. I prefer spending $100 on expanding a drift of snowdrops rather than on one or two novel cultivars with yellow markings.

You may read that snowdrops should be planted, or moved, only “in the green,” that is, after flowering but while still in leaf and root. I’ve found if you order bulbs early in the fall and get them in the ground as soon as they arrive, they don’t miss a beat. In another part of Green Spring, clumps of giant snowdrop are so long flowering this winter at the base of conifers (I can’t tell if they’re bald cypress or dawn redwoods) that some of them are beginning their natural decline.

Descend to the woodland stream in this park and you see more of the native hardwood topography of winter, where river birches lean out and the understory of shrubs is reduced to a haze of twigs above a coffee-colored sea of fallen leaves. The American beech tree is a beacon of bright, smooth gray column, but here, as in every urban park, each tree is marred by lovers with their knives. One tree is so defaced by declarations of affection that it looks like a sailor that has had too much shore leave. Hal Loves Nancy, we are told. Hal doesn’t love trees; this one must bear his gesture for the rest of its long life. One can only hope that Nancy came to her senses and ran off with a tree-hugger.

Gardening tip of the week

If you are storing dahlia tubers over the winter, examine bags to see if any have begun to soften and rot. Remove offenders. Tubers shrivel in storage but should not be heavily wrinkled. Rehydrate desiccated roots with a sprinkle of water. Keep bags in the dark to discourage premature growth. Pot up the tubers in early April to trigger growth and plant in mid-May.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

The first indication Samboja was being nudged to find a partner came last year, when her home zoo – the Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands – took to Facebook to casually point out that the female orangutan was approaching the age where she could start having kids.

A year later, the Dutch zoo has announced how exactly they’re hoping the primate will meet someone: through “Tinder for orangutans.”

The approach is exactly what one might imagine it to be.

Zookeepers at the park, about 60 miles east of Amsterdam, say they will start using a tablet to show the orangutan pictures of available males from a breeding programme, according to the Guardian. Just, you know, as suggestions.

While there might not be any swiping left or right involved, researchers will pay attention to how Samboja responds to the images.

If she seems to prefer pictures of a certain male over others, that could help narrow down which potential breeding partner she meets up with in real life – which often involves international travel.

The goal of the four-year experiment, zoo officials said, is just like the one for Tinder for humans: to increase the chances of finding a mate.

“Often, animals have to be taken back to the zoo they came from without mating,” zoo biologist Thomas Bionda told the Dutch newspaper Tubantia, according to the Guardian. “Things don’t always go well when a male and a female first meet.”

There was only one hiccup as they proceeded with “Tinder for orangutans” – their devices weren’t strong enough for the animals.

Upon being handed a tablet, 11-year-old Samboja immediately destroyed it.

The Dutch zoo said it is seeking “an orangutan-proof screen” before it can continue the research.

A similar tactic – with less destructive results – was done last year at the Wilhelma Zoo in Stuttgart, Germany, in an effort to improve the birth rate for the endangered species.

Photos released by the German zoo last year showed two female orangutans named Conny and Sinta staring at a MacBook through a window, as a zookeeper showed them videos of potential mates. (Conny, on the left, had her face tilted and eyes widened. Sinta, on the right and with a sheet tossed over her head, seemed less engaged.)

However, based on the “video dating,” Sinta apparently took a liking to a male orangutan named Gempa at a Belgian zoo.

“He also found Sinta appealing in the video,” a statement from Wilhelma Zoo said. The two were quickly united for a “date” in Belgium, but the meeting did not appear to produce any offspring.

Still, the German zoo found that some orangutan preferences persisted even when viewing potential partners through a screen.

“For orangutans, appearances appear to be an important factor in choosing a partner,” zoo official Marianne Holtkoetter said in a statement. “Apparently, many females find the cheeks attractive.”

The orangutan population first became threatened in the 1970s and 1980s with illegal logging in Indonesia, where 80 percent of wild orangutans are found, said Birute Mary Galdikas, president and founder of Orangutan Foundation International.

Today, researchers are uncertain how many orangutans remain in the wild but estimates range from 45,000 to 60,000, including both Bornean and Sumatran species, she said.

“Orangutans have always bred successfully in captivity,” Galdikas said. “What has been a problem is to make sure that . . . they try to select the proper orangutans with breeding so that natural populations or natural subspecies of Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are maintained.”

As for the Tinder approach, Galdikas thought it was “a good first step” but suggested videos would be more effective than still photos.

“Female orangutans pick the males that they want by all senses,” she said. “They look at how they move, how big they are and also judge the strength of the long call (that adult male orangutans in the wild vocalize). She might even like to smell him . . . I think there are a variety of ways of doing it. This might be a good first step.”

And even then, only a face-to-face meeting would reveal if two orangutans are a match.

“We may not know why she’s pointing at the picture,” Galdikas said. “It could be she couldn’t stand him . . . or is pointing to the ugliest one.”

The experiment at the Dutch zoo is in many ways a natural extension of research on primate emotions already conducted at Apenheul in conjunction with scientists from Leiden University in the Netherlands. Past experiments have included showing bonobos and orangutans pictures of their peers on a touch-screen device, the zoo said in a statement Tuesday.

Some photos showed the animals with neutral expressions and behaviors, while others showed positive behaviors or aggressive emotions. Afterward, researchers measured whether the primates responded to the photos by pressing a dot on the screen.

What they found was that apes were alert to the emotions of their peers.

“Moreover, the study of apes is a way to better understand the evolution of behavior and other concepts, such as cognition, emotion and empathy,” the zoo said.

The zoo hopes its research on primate emotions and how the animals respond to each other will allow them to improve breeding programs in the long run. Since its founding, Apenheul has prided itself as a park where primates live in large, natural enclosures in a forest rather than in cages.

“The concept was simple: people enjoy primates most when the primates are enjoying themselves and behaving naturally,” the zoo said. “The freedom given to the animals allowed them to form ideal social groups and to reproduce perfectly.”

Washington Post-Bloomberg

Many years ago, in the blackness of nighttime in the country, I saw an apparition. It was a large, white-winged specter hovering by the hedgerow some six feet in the air.

Naturally, I took it to be an angel and went on my way. The episode haunted me for years, even after I had come to the conclusion that it may not have been an actual angel, but a barn owl. We think of barn owls as having light-brown plumage, but their bodies and underwings are as white as their heart-shaped faces. In flight they are angelic, though a rodent may have another perspective.

This is the not-unpleasant paradox of the owl. It is a bird of prey – a natural-born killer – and yet is the most cuddly of our raptors. This has to do with the way owls are put together. Unlike, say, a hawk, which has an exposed beak and eyes on either side of a relatively small head, the owl is all face. Its eyes point forward, like ours, the facial disks around them magnify the head, and the feathery tufts suggest ears even if they’re not. The eyes are disproportionately large and seem to be all knowing. This is why we anthropomorphize owls.

“We imagine that their faces reveal their thoughts or mood,” said Marianne Taylor, a natural history writer. “Some appear kindly and wise, others stern, angry, surprised or even haunted. The calls of owls also catch our imagination. Because most of them call at night, when there is little other competing noise, we hear them clearly and often find their voices startling or chilling.”

Taylor lives in southern England, where that call is the classic hoot of the tawny owl – the soundtrack to many a horror film of the 1960s. In our neck of the woods, we are more likely to hear the call of the closely related but larger barred owl. Owls such as these are the gardener’s friend. They are highly efficient at finding voles, the mouselike creatures that can devastate a garden with their root chewing and bulb scoffing.

But owls are loved for their place in the natural world, not just their utility, and owl fans have reason to rejoice. Coincidentally, two new books, large and lavishly photographed, detail all the world’s known owls, some 230 species around the globe.

The first is by Taylor, “Owls: A Guide to Every Species in the World.” The second is by author Mike Unwin and photographer David Tipling, “The Enigma of the Owl: An Illustrated Natural History.” Taylor’s book groups the birds by species, Unwin’s by region.

Thumbing through their pages, it’s tempting to alight on the biggest owls, if only visually. In the mid-Atlantic region, that means the great horned owl. It is drawn to mature trees, and one lived in my garden in Alexandria, Virginia once for two or three weeks, in the upper boughs of an old holly tree. I found the arrival of this magnificent animal to be exciting, but this was before learning, as Unwin explained, that the talons of this bird “may exert a pressure that is around the same as the bite of a Rottweiler.”

We may also see a snowy owl, an arctic bird that strays south along the Eastern Seaboard at this time of year. It is large, white, nests in the open in the tundra and is a lemming’s worst nightmare, if you discount cliffs. The great horned owl’s Old World counterpart, the Eurasian eagle owl, sits atop the food chain. “Prey up to the size of rabbits is swallowed whole,” Unwin writes. It vies with another eagle owl, Blakiston’s fish owl, as the biggest, though the latter is found only in East Asia. Loss of habitat to development has led to its endangered status. Nesting boxes on the Japanese island of Hokkaido have helped check the decline. Here, Unwin tells the reader, this giant among owls is revered as “The God that Protects the Village.” Taylor calls it “an overstuffed teddy bear with a ferocious face.”

I find some of the smallest owls to be the most enchanting, though I live nowhere near their range. The smallest is the elf owl, which inhabits the semideserts and chaparrals of the American Southwest, nesting in cavities made by woodpeckers in saguaros and other cactuses. It is the size of a sparrow but with intense yellow eyes, and will happily eat a scorpion.

Perhaps the most endearing small species is the red-chested owlet, which is dove gray and has big yellow eyes and a light breast flecked like a thrush, except the dots are tear-shaped. It lives in the forests of West Africa.

Taylor, via email, said that she finds the ashy-faced owl of Hispaniola the most beautiful. It has warm, red-tan plumage and a distinct frame to its face. She described it as “a small, deep-golden barn owl with huge, soulful dark eyes in a dusky, almost violet-tinted face.”

Her favorite species is the ubiquitous short-eared owl, found in five of the seven continents. She likes it because it hunts on the wing – most owls perch and look out for passing prey – and in daylight. “It has a wonderfully light, agile flight and is a joy to watch,” she said.

What can a home gardener do to help owls? Taylor suggests putting up a nesting box that might attract an eastern screech owl, to leave some parts of the yard wild to encourage prey species and to avoid heavy pesticide use.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

When Sinbad the cat showed up at the Anti-Cruelty Society, an animal shelter in Chicago, he weighed more than 11 pounds. Five pounds of that was fur.

The 8-year-old Persian’s hair was gray, matted and laced with excrement and maggots. It was a shocking and stinking sight, the result of years of lack of grooming and neglect. Shelter workers spent several hours shaving off part of Sinbad’s fur, then sedated him for a second, closer-to-the-skin shaving session.

“It really did look like he was dragging a carpet behind him,” said Colette Bradley, a spokeswoman for the society. “He was tired, you could tell.”

But in the six weeks since Sinbad’s arrival at the shelter, he’s made a remarkable comeback. His fur has started to grow back – and it’s white and fluffy. He’s been adopted by a shelter employee, Elliott Serrano. And in a most unlikely turn of events – or, perhaps, the most likely of all – he’s become a social media darling.

Sinbad, with the help of Serrano, has grown an Instagram following of more than 7,200 people in the past two weeks – hardly Lil’ Bub levels, but not bad for a newbie to the very wide world of Internet cats. He’s got nearly that number of followers on Facebook. The backstory helps, as does his Grumpy Catlike face.

“I just got a message from Uzbekistan, a direct message on Facebook,” Serrano said in an interview. “They said they were very happy I had Sinbad. That they once had a Persian, too, but it had a liver infection, and they knew the person who had Sinbad before wasn’t a bad person. And then they just said: ‘Thank you.’ “

Sinbad’s rebound began in early December when a utility worker visiting the cat’s former home noticed him in the basement. She called the Anti-Cruelty Society, which adopts out more than 5,000 dogs and cats and conducts 2,000 cruelty investigations a year, Bradley said. It sent over investigators, and the owner, who Bradley said was “just really unaware of the needs of a Persian cat, and in failing mental health,” agreed to give him up.

Beneath the dingy fur, Sinbad was underweight, at less than seven pounds. But even so, Bradley said, “as soon as that hair was off, he was going up to people in the room and rubbing up against them.” Serrano, who manages the shelter’s humane education programs and describes himself as “a middle-aged man,” wasn’t planning to travel for the holidays, so he took Sinbad home when the shelter closed for a few days. He soon decided to make the relationship permanent.

Not that it was smooth sailing from the start. Yes, Sinbad was loving. But even after the shave, he remained fragrant for a couple weeks, Serrano said.

“The first week he was with me, he would lie on me, and he was still kind of smelly,” Serrano said. I was like, “Oh buddy, you’re a nice guy, but we’ve gotta take care of the smell.” These days, Sinbad smells fine, weighs in at just over eight pounds and is feisty, said Serrano, who on Tuesday posted a photo of the cat after he’d jumped onto his new owner’s shoulders. And Serrano said he’s taken to the role of being “like his handler. I’m his agent.”

That’s in part because Sinbad is a poster cat for what Serrano does all day: teach children about responsible pet ownership and having positive relations with animals – and people like Sinbad’s former owner, who Serrano said was an example of how elderly people are also sometimes neglected.

Sinbad “is the perfect story to tell and share,” Serrano said. “He’s a perfect example of what it’s like when people step up and show they care and intervene for those in need.”

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With the Moroccan surf roaring in the distance and a glass of sweet mint tea by my side, it’s easy to feel like my nomadic life is perfect. Today, it is.

The day my father died while I explored another city, however, was not.

All lifestyles come with sacrifices, and my sacrifices were made so that I could see the world. When you’re young and life’s promise awaits, long-term travel can be an easy choice. But in your 40s – when most everyone you know has a mortgage, family and secure future in hand – forsaking security for the great unknown is a bold risk.

When I gave my landlord the keys to my apartment days before my 42nd birthday, I had sold the leather sofa set that took me seven years to pay off. Giving away the wall of books I’d spent a life accumulating crushed me, and I struggled to have friends “adopt” the copious kitchen appliances that I adored. Yet, somehow, I whittled my 900-square-foot park-side apartment in Victoria, BC, down to nine boxes.

Standing before my landlord that morning, if I could have reneged on my decision to go “full nomad,” I might have. I was deeply anxious about whether I’d be tough enough for this adventure.

But even greater was the fear of regretting not attempting my decades-long dream of traveling the world.

I offloaded those apartment keys, threw my bags in a friend’s SUV, along with my nine boxes – representing a life that once took a 25-foot moving truck to transport. Croatia awaited. The boxes went in storage, and I hopped on a plane.

Since that day 16 months ago, I’ve lived in over 30 cities, taken more than 40 flights and a dozen trains, while struggling to make myself understood in six languages and 10 countries. Amazing as it is, there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t long to share what my friends back home are experiencing, or wish I could play with my niece. Or even just be in the same time zone so that a phone call home doesn’t require math and preplanning.

On the other hand, I get to explore the Mexican high desert, road-trip through the Azores islands, or listen to a bagpiper on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

I wish I could be happy with a “regular” life – family, a good job – but children were never in my picture. Other girls played with dolls and called them their “babies,” but I coveted Smurfs, stories and Legos. When other teens dreamed of marrying one day, I imagined a “spinster” life running a bed-and-breakfast as I typed away in an oceanside study.

Single life seemed ideal because I wanted freedom to travel and live as I liked, but 15 years of misadventure interfered with that dream. A couple near-fatal accidents, a decade of struggle, a wall of medical debt – it all stood between me and the world. That “freedom” I’d opted into as a single woman had become a life of Netflix binges and fat-pants, while working from home. Daily, online displays of other people’s freedom taunted me, until I decided to be relentless in pursuit of my own freedom.

One-third into my plan to travel for five years, there’s still so much more I long to experience. A whole world waits to be tasted and trampled.

The nomadic life isn’t always glamour and glory. Every new shower or tub is a learning curve. Beds are unpredictable. Travel days are panic-filled. Flights are insufferable. And you really haven’t lived until you’ve crushed a fast-crawling scorpion emerging from your sink.

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When people think about working animals, what often comes to mind are dogs that herd sheep, horses that work on farms and animals that perform in movies. But there are lots of other jobs animals have had over the years.

Dogs are much more sensitive to smell than humans. This made dogs the traditional hunting companion, enabling their owners to track foxes and other game. Police departments have taken advantage of this skill to help find missing people and escaped convicts. Recently, dogs have been trained to use their super-sniffers to find illegal drugs, explosives and even hidden computer equipment.

There is a bird in the southeast African nation of Mozambique called the honeyguide, which has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with a tribe called the Yao. If a Yao tribesman makes a certain chirping sound, the honeyguide will fly from tree to tree directing the tribesman to a hidden beehive. Once discovered, the humans break open the hive for honey, and the birds feast on wax.

Ferrets are cute, furry animals in the weasel family that range in size from 1 1/2 to four pounds. They have helped humans for centuries. About 2,000 years ago, ancient Romans trained ferrets to flush rabbits out of their burrows to feed their troops. European settlers who came to America used them to keep rodents under control. More recently, people have taken advantage of a ferret’s natural instinct to run through tight spaces. Pipe-running ferrets wear a special harness that enables them to pull a string through hundreds of feet of pipe. The string is then used to pull cables and computer wires through the pipe.

Baby flies are called maggots. The job of a maggot is to eat and grow until it turns into a fly. This is similar to how a caterpillar eats and grows until it becomes a butterfly. However, there is a big difference between these insects. Caterpillars eat plant matter, whereas maggots devour meat. Actually, they eat only decaying meat. Medical-grade maggots are used with patients who get serious infections that can’t be treated with antibiotics. The maggots are applied to the infected area for a number of days. They eat the dead tissue but leave the living tissue alone, thereby helping patients recover from the infection.

The United States military has trained marine animals for other tasks. Bottlenose dolphins can echolocate, or use sound waves to determine where an object is. The Navy has used them to detect underwater mines. California sea lions have excellent vision and have been trained to find lost equipment and swimmers who try to enter restricted waters.

In cartoons, goats are often shown eating cans and other junk. In real life, they prefer things that are green: grass, leaves and underbrush. In some parts of the country, people rent out herds of goats to clean (eat) overgrown and invasive plants.

Of course, using an organic lawn mower has its consequences: goat poop.

Perhaps the oddest animal job of all belongs to Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel. (You can find videos of her on YouTube.) Twiggy is fun to watch, but she’s also sending a message about water safety.

Among other animal that make life easier for humans dogs. Considered as the best friend of man since centuries. There are variety of breeds which helps humans in different ways, some do the job of a watch guard, while some help the police in finding out the crime scene clues and also in nabbing a criminal.

These trained dogs are good in following commands, and knows when to attack and when not to attack an intruder. Some of the best guard dogs are Bullmastiff, Wolf Shepherd, Dogue de Bordeaux, Boxers, German Shepherds etc. Believe me, these dogs are a far better choice than those human guards who just sits in their chairs and dozes off. Hence the reason most people have a human guard along with a dog.

Horses have been working for humans as a means of transport and even today they are used in some parts of the world. Its believed that horses also comfort the human heart. It is regarded as one of the prestigious animal. These were used in many wars as well and it was the main source of travel until the development of the engine.

Another means of transport which are used even today in the desert parts of the world, Camels are the animals which can walk for longer distance in the sand and heat without the need of much water. This animal is created in such way that it can survive in a desert environment. It has three eyelids and the third can be closed for protection during sand storms. Nostrils have special muscles which closes during sand storms and the hump stores fat which will be used as food and energy and keeps it going for more than three weeks without water.

The Electric Eel is created in such a way that it can emit electricity and the south American electric eel can grow up to 8 feet long, catches its prey by emitting about 600-650 volts burst of electricity and also stays away from its predators by killing it from the same energy. The eel’s electric power can be used in short bursts for small tasks and is used to lighting up a small Christmas trees.

Even the tiniest of animals have been life saver for humans and rats are one among them. All though these rats are not tiny, these are the African giant pouched rat which are about 3 feet in length. These rats are specially trained to sniff out land mines and detecting for any explosives etc. Well, its not only dogs, but the hero rats also have the same instincts. These rats are under experiment to use them in the diagnosis of tuberculosis treatment in hospitals.

Reindeer’s are also used for transportation again, but in a cold environments. Just like the camels, reindeer’s are specially designed to survive in the cold climates

Elephants are known to be the heaviest animal and its amazing thing that humans can control and get work done even from such a big animal. Elephants have been used to lift and load heavy things for which they use their trunks. Elephants are proven to be the most intelligent mammal and they have a very good memory power for many years.

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When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey folds its circus tents in May, about 400 people will be out of a job. So will dozens of animals.

The show’s famous elephants are already retired, now living out their days on the company’s conservation center in Florida. Some acts, like the dogs and the lions, are owned by their handlers and will remain with them. But the kangaroos, horses, camels, tigers and others belong to Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling, which has said it will find them suitable homes. Stephen Payne, a spokesman, said in an interview this week that those locations have not yet been chosen, but that wherever the creatures land will “have to meet our high animal care standards.”

Their options include zoos and private owners, but former circus animals often end up at the animal sanctuaries that dot the nation, which vary widely in quality. Those might not have much trouble taking in horses or kangaroos, but tigers, bears and other large carnivores are another matter. Failed roadside zoos and refuges, abandoned exotic pets and crackdowns on circuses have created a swelling menagerie of wild animals that need homes – homes with lots of land, lots of food and proper enclosures. Payne said Feld owns about 18 tigers, which will likely join a steady stream of big cats in search of shelter.

“We will do anything we can do to help them place their tigers, I’ll say that right now,” said Ed Stewart, the president of the California-based Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, a longtime Ringling adversary that this month took in eight tigers from a failed sanctuary in Colorado. “But it’s not going to be easy, because all legitimate sanctuaries are full of tigers right now.”

The demand for wild animal accommodation is rising out of trends that animal welfare activists and sanctuary owners welcome, such as an increasing public distaste for entertainment and research involving animals and bans against circuses in US cities and several Latin American countries. But they say it is also a sign of the shocking ease with which Americans can acquire exotic animals, as well as the big money involved in breeding bear cubs and other creatures that sell for thousands of dollars.

Tigers are the emblems of this crisis of homeless wild animals, though bears are also “ridiculously hard to place,” said Kellie Heckman, executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which has accredited 132 US sanctuaries, only 11 of which accommodate big cats. Ordinary people adopt fuzzy cubs as pets, and some zoos and refuges allow let visitors handle and take photos with them, a practice animal welfare advocates condemn. But cute cubs grow into aggressive adolescents within a matter of months, and those used for entertainment often don’t perform for many years. They outgrow their use, in other words.

US officials and conservation groups estimate that 5,000 to 10,000 tigers live in the United States, far more than in the wild. Until recently, dozens of them resided at Serenity Springs, an unaccredited Colorado sanctuary that bred big cats, offered photos with cubs and had been cited by the US Department of Agriculture for animal welfare violations. Last fall, it was sold to a respected sanctuary in Arkansas, which has since been finding new homes for 110 animals, mostly cats.

“The sanctuary community cannot continue to be the dumping ground for all of those that make a profit off animals – whether that is using them for cub photos, circus acts or any commercial purpose. There just isn’t enough capacity,” Heckman said. “Building more sanctuary enclosures is not the answer. We need to regulate who can have exotic animals and for what purposes.”

Laws on owning wild animals vary by animal and by state. Some states have bans or require permits, while five do not restrict keeping dangerous wild animals. Last year, the federal government finalised two regulations aimed at increasing oversight of the American tiger population. Advocates say they are hopeful the Ringling closure might generate momentum for two federal bills, which the company opposed, to ban private ownership and breeding of big cats as well as the use of wild animals in circuses and traveling shows.

In the meantime, representatives of accredited sanctuaries say they’re eager to help find homes for the Ringling animals. Susan Bass, the spokeswoman for Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, said its founder had offered assistance in an email to chief executive Kenneth Feld. The sanctuary would be able to add some of the tigers to its population of 80 cats big and small, Bass said.

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Oh Long Johnson,” a cat once said, back in the primordial history of internet memes. “Oh Don Piano. Why I eyes ya.”

Or so said the captions – appended to the gibberish of a perturbed house cat on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in 1999 and rediscovered in the YouTube era, when millions of people heard something vaguely human echo in a distant species.

It was weird. And hilarious. And just maybe, profound.

As the “Oh Long Johnson” craze was fading a few years ago, a wave of scientific discoveries about apes and monkeys began upending old assumptions about the origins of language.

Only humans could wilfully control their vocal tracts, went the established wisdom. Until Koko the gorilla coughed on command.

Surely, then, our vowels were ours alone. But this month, researchers picked up British ohs in the babble of baboons.

Study after study is dismantling a hypothesis that has stood for decades: that the seeds of language did not exist before modern humans, who got all the way to Shakespeare from scratch.

And if so much of what we thought we knew about the uniqueness of human speech was wrong, some think it’s time to take a second look at talking pet tricks.

“It’s humbling to understand that humans, in the end, are just another species of primate,” said Marcus Perlman, who led the Koko study in 2015.

“These kinds of videos suggest, likewise, that the vocal tract more broadly may have the potential to produce speech-like sounds.

“I know of a video with a husky that says, ‘I love you.’ “

Pity our animal cousins. Their throats and mouths are the wrong shape to form the many vowel sounds that slip between our consonants like grease between gears – sorting a clog of fricatives and plosives into the works of Dante or Celine Dion.

At least, that was the common thinking when Dion was little. It dates back to a study on a dead rhesus monkey in 1969, said Tom Sawallis, a linguist at the University of Alabama.

“You’ve got to have contrasting vowels to have the vocabulary, and you’ve got to have vocabulary to have syntax,” he said. And so on, all the way up to carpool karaoke.

“If you can’t have contrasting vowel sounds until 400,000 years ago, then you can’t have had language until then, at the very earliest,” Sawallis said.

And so supposedly, the most disruptive innovation in evolution developed in a few hundred thousand years, in the human body alone.

That thinking is changing.

Last year, a team of researchers took X-ray videos of macaque monkeys’ throats – live ones, not dead, as they went about their days.

The footage showed that the animals’ vocal tracts were not so ill-suited for speech after all. The macaques appeared capable of making nearly every human vowel sound.

Enter a team led by French researchers – Sawallis the lone American among them – who published their own study in Plos One this month after recording audio of monkeys.

“We found the actual vowel qualities that are used in human language,” Sawallis said.

They listened in on baboons, not macaques. But they picked up five vowel sounds that fit neatly into the same phonetic alphabet you can find in a classroom dictionary: A as in an American apple, O as in the British “bought.”

“Monkeys are capable of talking,” Sawallis said. At least, physically.

That would mean that what we now call language has been baking in the genetic code since the days of our last common ancestor with baboons – some 25 million years ago – if not longer.

“All the theories need re-examination,” Sawallis said.

Even he would not go as far as Scott Moisik, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, whose studies have thus far focused on human voices – but whose ears pricked up when he heard what Sawallis’s group found.

“When I hear a cat on YouTube produce a vocalisation that very much sounds like ‘oh long Johnson,’ “ he said in an email to the Associated Press, he wonders how far back down the evolutionary tree our path to speech began.

He told The Washington Post that he hears in house pets not just vowel qualities but intonation, syllabicity, rhythm “and, amazingly (especially in the case of cats) some consonantal strictures.”

“However these animals do it . . . one cannot deny there are properties in their vocalisation that are approximating human speech,” Moisik wrote. “Someone needs to take the time and really do the analysis.”

Sawallis agrees on the last point, though he’s skeptical about the talking pet stuff.

“We as humans are really, really good at pattern detection. We overrecognise in a variety of ways,” he said. “But I don’t have to certify that ‘Oh Long Johnson’ does do something interesting to know we should investigate these other animals.”

So, too, thinks Marcus Perlman, a cognitive scientist who also researches with the Max Planck Institute.

“The studies with monkeys show it’s not particular to humans,” he said. “This might extend more broadly.”

He was curious about Mishka, the viral husky that appeared to whine “I love you.”

Perlman’s research has focused instead on great apes – a closer relative to humans than monkeys, though no less disruptive to scientific consensus.

Whatever sounds make up a vocal repertoire – vowels, consonants, grunts or basic barks – humans were once thought the only primate able to control their voices to any significant extent.

Other animals were thought to make sounds like you yelp when you touch an iron: as pure reflex.

But in a 2015 study, Perlman and a team of researchers documented how a 280-pound gorilla named Koko had been trained to cough, blow into a recorder and make several other noises at will.

His team’s study was followed up last year, when an orangutan named Rocky at the Indianapolis Zoo was trained to control something approximating a voice.

“He was able to listen to a human make a vocalisation and able to match the frequency of that,” said Rob Shumaker, who is the zoo’s executive vice president and co-authored the study. “Prior to this study with Rocky, most of the conversation was saying this is a uniquely human event.”

Put that together with the Koko study, and the baboons and macaques, and “we are starting to put the puzzle together.”

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