Monday, March 31, 2008


Ken Harris © 2006

Most of the times in our lives, animals simply happened to us. They came, they stayed with us, and they left, living their lives and enriching ours. Leah was that way. I don’t remember how she showed up but she was one of the nicest persons, cat or human, I’ve ever met.

She was a long-haired calico, totally uninterested in grooming herself. As a result, she left a trail of hair balls wherever she went. You would think that this would be enough to consign her to the highway, but no. She was so amazingly nice that we put up with her disgusting lack of personal hygiene.

Everyone liked Leah. The dogs petted her by rubbing their noses along her back. I even saw one of our horses do that one morning. She was stroking her sides back and forth on Ringwraith’s (a large sealbrown gelding of Joanne’s) and soon he nuzzled her.

She used go with me in the mornings to change the sprinklers. It fell my lot to change the sprinklers in the five acre pasture. In the winter, this meant doing so in the dark of the morning. In the summer, since I commuted long miles, it often meant changing them in the dark of the evening. But Leah went with me even though it she always returned soaked to the skin. Leah is the only cat I ever heard of who would walk through tall, wet grass just to keep a human company.

She even jogged with us. I liked her company because I have never been much of a runner and a pussy cat trot was fine with me.

Leah had a litter of kittens once. We checked them over and complimented her on what a good job she had done. No problem. Skoshi and Abby nuzzled the kittens. Again, no problem. And then one day our neighbors’ dog showed up, a golden nosed retriever. He heedlessly stuck his head in the kitten box and ran home wearing Leah on his head. She had sunk all claws and teeth into the surprised dog’s head. We were all surprised. Especially the dog. It was a total turn around for Leah.

The dog never returned. Can’t blame him.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Swine Lake, Part II

Swine Lake, Part II
©Ken Harris, 2006

On this particular occasion Fritz had to go to work and so was unavailable to help us. But we didn’t worry. We had done enough of this thing ourselves. We put food in the trough and the pigs crowded in to eat. We selected the pig we wanted and Joanne put a .38 caliber wad cutter into his head. Just to make sure, Joanne shot the pig in the head several times. Wad cutters are slugs squared off at the ends. It’s like shooting pieces of rebar.

When you shoot a pig in the head with a .38 caliber wad cutter, you will kill him. The only trouble is,the pig doesn’t always know it. And this sometimes interferes with step two, which is slicing the pig’s throat to get the blood out.

In this particular case, as soon as Joanne shot the pig in the head, he withdrew to be very center of Swine Lake. Joanne and I looked at each other. We looked at each other’s feet. She was wearing mud boots. I was wearing regular shoes because I didn’t have mud boots. She won. She got to slice the royal throat.

Joanne approached the pig and slit its throat nicely, I thought. And that’s when the pig began to sing and dance. “BYOR-R-R-K!!” it sounded, even though it’s head was almost severed, inhaling air through its open trachea. “BYOR-R-R-K!!” again. Meanwhile it stood on its hind legs and byorrrked some more. People from homes a quarter of a mile away stuck their heads out of doors and windows and peered into the noontime gloom, wondering what was happening in that distant fog. Surely something dreadful.

Finally the pig ran out of energy and began to lie down in the mud. But in a final burst of defiance, he stood up and fell over onto the other side, so that his body was completely covered with foul goop instead of only one side of it. Then with a convulsive inhalation, the pig ingested slime into his interior, creating an unholy mess inside and out.

Joanne dragged the carcass to the shore where I could help her get him on the hoist. Usually humans win at a pig slaughtering, but this time I think it was a draw.

Man, I was so glad I didn’t have mud boots.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Swine Lake, Part I

Swine Lake, Part I
©Ken Harris, 2006

Sometime in the 1970s my brother-in-law, Fritz, his wife Ruth, and their three hopeful daughters, Katrina, Leslie and Holly (see, moved from the fair sized Southern California community of Thousand Oaks to five acres outside of Orosi, a small town in the Central Valley. Even by Central Valley standards Orosi was something of an armpit. (But that was almost 40 years ago. Maybe it has anatomically improved itself by now.)

In Thousand Oaks Fritz had worked as a computer engineer, but they didn’t have any of those in Orosi, so he accepted employment with the local irrigation district. The move made sense in certain ways. The Sixties were not too far in the past, and there was still a healthy “back to the land” movement afoot in the nation. Mother Earth News had a large circulation.

The land that the Heyser family moved back to was very sandy, great for walnuts, citrus and grapes. Fritz decided to raise pigs. We, the rest of the family, could buy the pigs, and we did so gladly. Fritz’s handraised pork was some of the best I have ever tasted anywhere.

But the pig project did not come easily. For one thing, pigs are not among God’s most gracious creatures. They are stubborn, insensitive, immune to pain and very intelligent, an unfortunate combination of traits. Raising pigs is full of surprises, few of them pleasant.

Fritz put his pig pen next to an outbuilding under a huge walnut tree. Later he discovered that pigs are almost immortal save for human intervention, but don’t fare especially well on sandy soil under walnut trees. Be that as it may, the pigs all lived long enough to slaughter, butcher and eat.

For those uninitiated into the genteel mysteries of porcine processing, slaughtering consists of killing, drawing, skinning and quartering the animal. Butchering is the art of taking pig quarters and cutting them into hams, chops and sausage meat. Not to forget the bacon. Never forget the bacon. After the pig has been reduced to parts, he is wrapped, frozen and, voila, the butchering she is done.

Since anyone with some tools and a misplaced faith in their own competence can slaughter, we did that for ourselves. The butchering we left to others who knew what they were doing.

Slaughter time always seemed to coincide with tule fog time. That is another matter that requires some explanation. The Central Valley of California extends from a little north of Redding to a little south of Bakersfield, a matter of almost 500 miles in length. It is almost 100 miles wide. Several rivers run through the valley and eventually drain into the Pacific Ocean by way of San Francisco Bay.

The Central Valley is great for plants, but animals have some problems with it. For one thing, it is very hot in the summer. Then in the spring, when other places find flowers, the Central Valley displays tule fog. The entire valley can be submerged in a huge cloud of dense fog, 24/7, for months. Imagine a black and white photo of clam chowder in a white bowl. You see vague, murky things that you can only hope are benign. And that’s daytime. Visibility can run from quarter of a mile to your hand in front of your face. At night visibility can drop from the hand in front of your face to nothing at all. Day time temperatures may rise to 37°F. Nights plummet to 33°F. This weather can last for weeks. After a while, people just feel like killing pigs.

Fritz had obtained some U.S. Department of Agriculture pamphlets on hog slaughtering. He had lots of experience with deer, but hogs just might be different. The pamphlet advised the prospective hog slaughterer to slice the pig’s skin and cut the flesh of his hind legs near the trotters so hooks can be inserted between the Achilles tendon and the leg bone. Then, using the hoist you have thoughtfully provided beforehand, lift the pig until he is suspended upside down free of the earth. Then cut its throat and the pig will bleed freely. As a final precaution, the U.S.D.A. advised against upsetting the pig, since he was going to be alive while you were doing all this.

We always killed the pigs before we suspended them upside down. They didn’t get so upset that way.

Slaughtering was also a social event. Sometimes we had coffee and doughnuts before and celebratory wine after.

We shot the hogs with a .38 caliber hand gun, slit their throats, suspended them, and then skinned them. This latter process turned out to be laborious because pigs are firmly attached to their hides and do not easily relinquish them, even in death. But we cut and pulled and tore and tugged and, in due course, had a vaguely pig-shaped blob of lard. It looked like modern art. And standing in a ring proudly admiring the greasy creation, stood a ring of artistes, drinking a celebratory libation. The visibility was still 10 feet in front of your nose and the temperature was up to 37°F. Killing pigs and drinking wine. Life is good.

On occasion the Heysers even had a hog rendering. Fritz would start a fire under a cauldron, and how often do you see one of those except in a production of Macbeth. Bit by bit pieces of lard would be added to the cauldron until it was filled with liquefied lard. Then we could all skewer bread cubes and cook them in pig fat and drink more wine. Fritz and Ruth invited the neighbors in. It was the social event of the Orosi Season.

One other thing should be mentioned about slaughtering pigs at Fritz’s. It was wet. Since the fog never lifted, things that got wet stayed that way for a long time. The pigs’ pen attained an ectoplasmic state in just a very few weeks. At those times we called it Swine Lake.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Joshua Clemens

Joshua Clemens
©Ken Harris, 2006

We had a rabbit experiment for a while when we lived in Auburn, California, back in the 1960s. It had something to do with our daughter, Patricia, and 4-H. From one reason or another, the experiment was a failure and the end of the experiment followed its beginning in very short order. We were left with one poor, pitiful excuse for a rabbit, Joshua Clemens.

We who are older than dirt remember Joshua Clemens as a character in the television series Davy Crockett. Our son, Eric, was responsible for naming all our animals. That’s why our brown steer was named Black Sam and the kitten who loved to chase the end of a jump rope was called Rope Racer. Eric never missed Davy Crocket and he especially liked the Joshua Clemens character. And so it happened that when this ridiculous excuse for a rabbit became his pet, he named the one after the other.

Joshua Clemens’ front legs splayed out. When he ran he had to take care to spread his hind legs wide. Otherwise, his hind feet would step on his front legs and he would fall on his nose.

His teeth grew in great circles. Uninterrupted, they would grow through the roof of his mouth. We asked our farrier what to do about them. He had us hold the rabbit on its back and he nipped off the teeth with wire cutters. Well, shoot, we had wire cutters. We didn’t have to hire a horse shoer to do our rabbit’s dental work. Every six weeks or so after the farrier’s demonstration, we’d turn Joshua Clemens onto his back and trim his teeth with wire cutters.

What Joshua Clemens lacked in physical perfection he made up for in charm. Everyone liked Joshua, even the neighbor’s dog, Rajah. One day we were sitting in our living room when we saw Joshua Clemens running across the lawn with Rajah in hot pursuit. By the time we got out to the yard, Rajah was running across the lawn with Joshua Clemens in hot pursuit. Just a game they played.

As might have been expected, Joshua Clemens did not live very long, even for a rabbit. Physically, he just had too much going against him. We accepted his loss, except for Eric who grieved.

It may strike you that some of my animal stories end with the death of the animal. Well, duh! That’s what happens to your pets. That’s what will happen to us, too. The death rate among living things is 1.0. Not a very good arrangement, but we’re stuck with it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The coati mundi

Coati Mundi
Copyright Ken Harris 2007

One day my mother-in-law, Esther Heyser, made a foray into Ralph’s Supermarket, part of a grocery chain. As she stood in line waiting for the cashier, a moderately sized furry creature leaped into her shopping cart and started tossing canned goods and cereal boxes onto the floor in search of bananas and eggs.

Pandemonium. Uproar. Eeks and shrieks filled the air. Stomps and clomps reverberated as everyone in the near vicinity tried to remove themselves to the far vicinity. Everyone but Esther. Esther remained calm because she knew what the creature was. A coati mundi. She’d seen them in zoos and National Geographic magazines.

Obviously the coati was someone’s pet who had gotten himself lost and decided that his only reasonable course of action was to raid a supermarket. Since she recognized the animal for what he was, she volunteered to take him home with her and find the owner. Her decision saved the store manager the trouble of phoning Animal Control and he was very pleased when Esther paid her bill and took her groceries and new companion with her out to the car.

The coati mundi stayed with Joanne’s parents for three days, time enough for me to meet him and decide that he was not a restful creature. It’s really hard to concentrate on your book when the beast leaps into your lap, digs his hind feet into your belt, pries open your mouth with his front feet and roots around with his nose looking under your tongue for grubs. I threw him away as far as I could and he disappeared in a furry flash. I spent the next half hour spitting out coati mundi hair.

It wasn’t just me. He did that with all of us. He never found any grubs, but he always tried.

We never had trouble finding him. All you had to do was open the refrigerator door. This happened to Joanne. She opened the door. Instant coati raid. He’s on top of the refrigerator leaning in. Joanne shut the door and pinched his feet. He bit Joanne. She swatted him away and closed the door again quickly. On her nose. The furry flash disappeared.

He was with the Heyser family for only three days, but it seemed like decades. His owner reclaimed him and a great rejoicing was heard throughout the house.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


By Ken Harris © 2007

A dog named Balto lived next door to us in Glen Avon, Riverside County, California. It was around 1939 and I was five or six years old.

In January, 1925 a diphtheria epidemic threatened the children of Nome, Alaska. The nearest serum sat in Anchorage, 1000 miles away. The only airplane that could deliver the serum had been dismantled for winter. More than 20 mushers and their dog teams carried the serum from Anchorage to Nome. Temperatures dropped to 40 below, strong winds blow the sled teams over, but in spite of it all, the serum made it in six days. A musher named Gunnar Kaasen drove his team into Nome, and the team was headed by – you guessed it – a huskey named Balto.

Balto became a celebrity and for a couple of years afterwards Balto traveled the country as part of a show. And, as befits a celebrity, when he died, they stuffed him. The curious traveler may see his preserved body at the Cleveland Natural History Museum.

That diphtheria serum run also led more or less directly to the creation of the Iditarod sled dog race. Some people would like to have Balto’s remains sent to Alaska where he could be displayed at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Museum, but the people who manage the Cleveland Natural History Museum don’t want to give up their prize. This leads us to the sight of grown people, college people, fighting over a dead dog. (This information comes from

The point of this story is that back in the late Thirties there were many dogs named Balto, and I had one living next door to me. He was a husky type dog, and we spent some quality time together since there was no dog at the Harris house that summer.

Summer was coming on, and it got hot in Riverside County back then. It still does. Balto’s owners took him into town and had him clipped. All that long, Husky-type hair came off except for a ruff around his neck and a pompom on the tip of his tail. The groomer called it a “lion clip” and Balto’s owners thought he looked handsome and elegant. Balto thought he looked stupid and spent the rest of the week hiding behind the oleanders.

I agreed with Balto and spent some quality oleander time with him. At the same time, without the clip he would have been miserable in the summer heat. All of which makes me wonder. Why do people who live in the desert keep sled dogs? Do they keep Chihuahuas in Alaska? Finally, can anyone think of a better way to dispose of a dead dog?