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Petting the Tiger

September 27, 2013


Tiger Portrait, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013.

Tiger Portrait, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013.

“God created the cat so man would know what it was like to pet the tiger.”

Dr. Samuel Johnson

The show for which I have been madly creating work opens on October 8th at the Gallery at Town Center, in Lake Forest Park, Washington.  The last pieces are now at the framer, and I have a quiet, in-between moment to reflect on this wonderful, intense process.

In Missing Lynx, my first blog post about preparing for a show, I talked about muses.  Every time I have created a body of work, an animal has come forward and offered to work with me.  The lynx I created arrived first, leaving fresh tracks in the snow, and has since watched from the living room mantle, welcoming every animal who followed in the last several weeks.  There are bigger cats, and many birds, and finally, two small felines, bookends of this amazingly creative work cycle that began a year ago, inspired by a group of kittens and their very special mother.

And so, I come full circle.  I did not grow up with cats, did not  live with one until I was twenty, and I have always felt as if I had to make up for lost time.  A fascination became a passion, one that continues to guide my life’s adventure.  Even when I worked at a shelter, I craved even more interaction with cats.  I got home, spent time with my resident felines, and then went for long walks to commune with neighboring cats of the night.  They were my outdoor inspiration, each one a reminder of Leonardo daVinci’s observation, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”

A Canada Lynx may be the muse for my current work, but Felis catus, the small masterpieces who share my house and my computer screen, are my daily muses.  Last year, I fell for a Kitten Cam family, fostered by Purrfect Pals volunteer John Bartlett.  John sets up a camera in his kitten room so viewers can watch little ones from the time they are born until they are old enough for adoption.  A whole community revolves around that camera, an extended family of ailurophiles from around the world.  Tune in any time day or night, and you will find folks chatting about kitten antics, their own pets, what they had for dinner.  It goes deeper, into friendships off line, shared dreams and hopes, support during times of hardship and loss.  And perhaps the greatest gift of all: no one has to make excuses for being a cat person.

Scientist Family, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2012

Scientist Family, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2012

Last year, the Scientist Kittens captured my imagination, and got me back into the studio to do their portrait.  On September 29, 2012, Einstein, Tesla, Darwin, and Newton were adopted into their forever homes.  Marie, their mother, spent some time recovering her health at Purrfect Pals, and then found the best home imaginable in late November.  Their human families keep fans up to date with regular Facebook posts.

Since then, several families have grown up on the Kitten Cam and found their humans.  Tomorrow, the Looney fosters will get their turn.  Penelope, Taz, Marvin, Sylvester, and mama Hazel have legions of followers who will watch anxiously for updates until every one of them has been adopted.

As I chose the subjects for my last show pieces, I thought gratefully of 2 of my most recent muses: Ellie Marie, Scientist mother; and Hazel, soon to be freed from the duties of motherhood to experience her own, playful kittenhood.  These lovely ladies have captured many hearts, my own included.  So, to both of you, thank you for inspiring me, for refueling my passion to work on behalf of your species.

I will be honored to have work at The Gallery at Town Center from October 8 through November 16.  A percentage of the sale of Ellie Marie’s and Hazel’s portraits will be donated to Purrfect Pals.

Ellie Marie Portrait

Ellie Marie Portrait, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013

Hazel Portrait, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013

Hazel Portrait, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013

Cougar Love

September 17, 2013


This is another essay from my archives.  It is about an old cougar, a longtime muse, who is much on my mind as I prepare for a show at The Gallery at Town Center in October.   This story was first published in the Seattle Weekly on September 6, 1989.  It was later reprinted in the Fall 1990 issue of the Interspecies Newsletter.  Although I never saw Bonnie, the subject of this piece, anywhere other than her enclosures at the zoo, working on her portrait for the show reconnected me  with her unwavering spirit.  This collage honors her memory, and is an offering to the all cougars in the wild, in captivity, and in our collective imagination.

Cougar Love

When I was a child, I hated going to the zoo.  While my classmates breathlessly anticipated seasonal outings, I dreaded them.  More than once, I feigned a fever to avoid painful encounters with unhappily caged animals.

Considering this, my adult choices, first to volunteer, and then to work at a zoo, seem strange.  Nevertheless, I was drawn to the Woodland Park Zoo shortly after moving to Seattle seven years ago.  Intrigued by its shift to more humane enclosures and its evolving commitment to conservation, I sought ways to become involved.  Soon I was a keeper’s aide and docent-in-training; within a year, I was hired by the zoo’s education department as a summer programs manager.

Of all my memories from those years, none are as clear as my first adventure as a volunteer into the feline house.  A true cat aficionado, I floated like Alice in Wonderland through that inner sanctum, a hallowed hall with snow leopards, lions, and tigers on one side, ocelots, caracals, and sand cats on the other.

At first, I was attracted to the most exotic of the animals.  I joined the International Snow Leopard Trust and fell in with a circle of observers who brave winter weather each year to watch the great furred ones during breeding season.  At the time, it felt like love, very privileged love.

But remarkable as they were, the Snows stayed aloof.  I watched them, diligently recorded their movements, and walked away.  By then, I had cultivated a practical reverence for all the inhabitants of the feline house.  As I cleaned cages and distributed meals at feeding time, I kept my distance and went about my business in a state of awe.  Still, I dreamed of having more contact with the wild cats.

Cougar, Pen and Ink, Constance Perenyi, 1990

Cougar, Pen and Ink, Constance Perenyi, 1990

And that is what I got, from an unlikely quarter.  One morning as I ambled past the cougar holding area, I was greeted by a deep, rumbling purr.  In disbelief, I recited feline classification: genus Panthera, the largest cats such as lions and tigers, roars but does not purr; genus Felis, cougar included, does indeed purr.  But why was this imposing creature purring at me?  Was this a trick?  Did she intend to deceive me, or worse yet, break my heart with false promises?

I soon learned the promises were real.  For months, I had scrubbed this enclosure and all but ignored its occupants.  The purring cougar and her two cage mates were, along with the likewise native lynx at the other end of the unit, the least glamorous, most inconspicuous cats in the house. All were old and overweight, relegated to a dismal corner of the building. They weren’t spotted, striped, or imported.  They were American and common through and through, the kind of cat who on occasion wanders into a suburban yard to eat a poodle.

From my youth in Colorado, I recalled a raft of disturbing cougar stories.  In rural areas, ranchers consider the big cats a nuisance.  Only recently, and grudgingly, have the bounties on them been lifted.  Today, trophy hunters pay large sums to fly into remote Southwestern sites where cougars have been treed by hounds.  One bullet, and the puma spends eternity in a paneled den.

These are the pockmarks of human interactions with co-predators.  And once again, the native gets shortchanged.  Americans know and care more about Bengal tigers than about our own large cats.  Felis concolor fades into the shadows at the zoo as it does in the wild.

But this one specimen demanded my full attention.  First it was the purr, and then an invitation to touch.  Before getting too friendly, I looked into her background and learned that she had arrived at the zoo in 1968 as a small cub.  She was named Bonnie, and hand-raised by keeper Gordy Swanberg in his home.

In time, Bonnie had her own cubs and became one of the first zoo cats to receive an experimental birth control implant.  These were the facts on file.  More important to me and to the others who knew her was one hand-written note in her records that understated, “Very friendly to people.”

As a zoological educator, I knew well the cardinal rule of zoo work: never anthropomorphize the animals, never interpret their behavior in human terms.  But inside the feline unit, I quietly but fervently believed Bonnie and I were becoming friends.  Sometimes I felt torn between these contradictory notions, but when I read The Ghost Walker by the distinguished naturalist R.D. Lawrence, I knew I kept good company.  As a preface to his field studies of cougars, Lawrence relates his encounters with one in London’s Regent Park Zoo.  His experiences mirrored mine almost exactly.

I knew Lawrence would understand my attraction to Bonnie as she enticed me closer to her enclosure.  Gingerly at first, but with growing confidence and familiarity as time went on, I spread my fingers through the narrow slots in the grating to rub her neck and ears.  She responded with eager purrs.

More than once, I imagined going into the enclosure with Bonnie.  But, as they should, such thoughts remained fantasies.  I never tested the limits, never presumed upon the safety I believed I would enjoy at close quarters.  Even though she responded to my voice and rolled flirtatiously on her back just out of reach, she was still a wild cat, and a large one.  Our relationship thrived despite the barriers.

From Wild Wild West, written and illustrated by Constance Perenyi, published by Sasquatch Books, 1994

From Wild Wild West, written and illustrated by Constance Perenyi, published by Sasquatch Books, 1994

For three years after I left employment at Woodland Park, I continued to visit Bonnie.  Ever the docent, I spent hours on the public side of her enclosure, telling zoo visitors about cougars.  What most people saw was an obese, matted, broken-down cat.  What I saw was an indomitable character, confined by years of crowds and cages, but still more at ease with humans than I am myself.  Spectator response to her varied from indifference, to jeers, to pity.  She certainly was not the defiant, screaming wildcat of legend, but her tolerance of the situation was not born out of resignation, either.  I think she simply made the best of it, with as much dignity and serenity as she could preserve.

Bonnie died in her sleep at the end of May.  The average life expectancy of a captive cougar is pegged at ten years.  She more than doubled that span, but her last year was one of increasing discomfort and fatigue.  When a keeper friend called to tell me of her death, I responded with an unexpected sigh of relief.  In my last visits, I wanted to shield Bonnie from the public’s probing, judging eye, to guarantee her the company of people who knew her condition and still respected her essential cougarness.

Bonnie was the last of a generation of hand-raised cats in the feline unit.  In her lifetime, zoos began to change, and so did theories of animal management.  The pandering bears of old rarely wave from their pits today; their generation of zoo animals, raised and schooled to a very different relationship with humans, has nearly passed.  The move is on to emulate nature.  Now we peer into man-made habitats and pretend to see wild and free animals at home on the range.

But none of this is natural.  By the time I left Woodland Park Zoo, I wondered if these improvements actually benefited captive animals or merely eased human consciences.  So I have come full circle, again feeling uncomfortable with the idea of captivity, but aware of how much I owe to barred cages.  Although I may never see cougars in the wild, I am now content to ask them to live in my imagination rather than in a state of suspended animation at a zoo.  I treasure my memories of Bonnie.  For animals like her, I wish the undisturbed solitude of high, rocky places, which is, after all, their birthright.  Try as we may, we can never duplicate that.

Cougar Portrait

Cougar Portrait, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013

One on One

September 9, 2013


As I mentioned in my last post, I am preparing for a show at The Gallery at Town Center in October.  This is quite a journey, one that is leading me to search through long-forgotten files, both literal and figurative.  Not forgotten, however, are animals I wrote about decades ago.  The dates I transcribe shock me  – how could those events have unfolded so long ago?  But I remember details clearly, and they seem as relevant today as they did then.

This is an article I wrote for Cornell University’s magazine Living Bird Quarterly (now known as Living Bird), published in the Winter 1990 issue.  It was republished in the Interspecies Newsletter in 1992, and included in the anthology The Soul Unearthed in 1996.  The reasons I have chosen to portray a Double-crested Cormorant for this upcoming show are clear.  Ever since a fated Christmas years ago, cormorants have represented resilience to me.  I once started a futuristic short story by describing one in flight:

“You have asked me to tell you about my life up to now. So I have to start by telling you about the last time I saw a cormorant. It was eleven years ago, give or take a few days, and I was crossing the Ship Canal Bridge on my way to work. The clouds over Lake Washington were thick when suddenly a great black bird broke through. I know you are too young to have ever seen cormorants, but they were one of my favorite birds. I always looked for them when I was near the water and wondered how they survived as long as they did. They couldn’t really stay dry and were improbable, awkward flyers, every one of them. This one seemed especially shaky. He had to work hard to clear the bridge, like an unsteady black arrow wavering on a crooked path until he finally made it over to Lake Union and disappeared, taking part of me with him.”

Oil Spill Clinic, Living Bird Quarterly

Oil Spill Clinic, photo from Living Bird Quarterly

One on One, Living Bird Quarterly

What I remember most is the smell.  Even now, one whiff of Dawn detergent and I am no longer standing at the kitchen sink but in a large gymnasium filled with frightened animals.  I have volunteered to care for birds after three major oil spills off the coast of Washington.  And while I am a veteran of sorts, I have no idea who discovered the multipurpose utility of Dawn.  I do know it is the best solvent to remove oil from feathers and fur.  Pumped by the gallon, this pungent blue liquid is vital to the rescue efforts.  It can also trigger memories.

My recollections of the most recent Washington spill had just begun to fade when the Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska.  At first, I tried to ignore details of the disaster presented by the media, but I was haunted by a familiar scene.  I could imagine the rows of oil-soaked birds held in paper bags and boxes, could almost hear the steam rising from the soapy washtubs.  From my own experience, I knew what volunteers in Alaska were doing for the injured animals, but I could not fathom the scope of their efforts.

On a larger scale, Prince William Sound on Good Friday looked much like stretches of the Washington coast after four Christmas week spills during the last five years.  Different circumstances, different amounts of oil, but the same picture of once pristine environments now stained beyond recognition.

These were certainly not the images that first led me to work with birds.  I began as an artist, trained in visual composition and steeped in a love of nature.  For years, my work was abstract, the birds and other animals implied but obscure.  Dissatisfied, I perceived what was missing and began to fill in the gaps with practical experience by working for Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.  I learned about birds by preparing their food and cleaning their enclosures.  I read everything I could about birds, absorbing facts and experiences, and eventually translating them visually.

But it wasn’t until I worked at an emergency oil spill clinic that I stopped observing animals at a distance.  Surrounded by injured birds, I could not separate myself from their vulnerability.  I was sickened by the oil on their feathers, evidence of human insensitivity to the environment.  At the same time, I was heartened by the humane concern of my fellow volunteers.  Once state agencies or local wildlife rehabilitation experts set up a clinic, it was primarily the volunteers who kept it afloat by donating supplies and energy.  Most volunteers hear about the accident on news broadcasts and decide to help for a few hours, days, or weeks.  Many arrive without animal handling skills, but all come with a commitment to learn and do whatever is necessary.

One on One pic 3 cropped

Three views from an oil spill clinic, Living Bird Quarterly

Looking back at three clinics, I recall different lessons from each.  My first, in a gymnasium 39 miles north of Seattle, seemed like an adventure, a chance to practice what I had learned as a keeper’s aide in the waterfowl unit in the zoo.  Because I had pertinent training, or thought I did, the coordinator asked me to force feed a group of buffleheads and goldeneyes.  They were small birds, I had small hands, so it seemed logical.

Logical maybe, but immediately I realized how unprepared I was to pick up a wild creature.  I reminded myself that no one, not even veterinarians or professional trainers, instinctively knows how to handle wild animals.  These skills are learned.  After a few hesitant attempts, I grabbed a bufflehead, pried open its beak, and pushed a dab of moistened food down its throat with my little finger.  I worked to perfect my technique, trying to move quickly without further stressing the bewildered birds.  To this day, I smile at the memory of my contact with dozens of tiny duck tongues.

In contrast to the pleasant memories of that first spill, my recollections of the most recent one are colored by desperation.  Two days before Christmas 1988, a tugboat rammed a tanker new Gray’s Harbor, southwest of Seattle.  Oil soon spread south to Oregon and north to British Columbia.  Officials initially underestimated the gravity of the worst accident in Washington history and were reluctant to enlist aid.  First asking for help from experienced volunteers only, the Washington Department of Ecology later acknowledged its gratitude to less experienced people who traveled from as far away as California and Canada.

By the time the first wave of volunteers arrived, three critical days had passed.  Inadequate supplies of hot water at a temporary clinic hampered washing efforts.  Some of the rarer birds, such as a rhinoceros auklet and a few loons, were washed immediately after recovery from the beach; but hundreds of common murres, pigeon guillemots, western grebes, and various scoters at in oil for nearly a week.  As they anxiously preened, they swallowed the toxic oil coating from their feathers.  Each day without a bath lessened their already slim chances of survival.

Oiled murres awaiting cleaning, Living Bird Quarterly

Oiled murres awaiting cleaning, Living Bird Quarterly

I joined other volunteers in an effort to keep the unwashed birds fed and hydrated until we could move to better facilities.  Exhausted after my first day at the clinic, I checked into the motel, tried to rest, and awoke abruptly.  I looked around the room and thought I saw shadows of murres and guillemots on the floor.  They broke in dark waves against the bed, vanishing every time I reached out.  I forced myself to go back to sleep, and then dreamed about a small white-winged scoter I had held during the day.  Unlike the other birds, she was quiet.  I stared at the soiled feathers on her back and sheltered her head with my hand.  As I rocked slowly, her heartbeat weakened, and I repeated, “I am sorry, I’m so sorry.”  For weeks afterward, I fought to rid myself of this nightmare and often awoke in tears.

Time has passed.  The dreams have faded, but not the scars on my hands.  These commemorate the feisty energy of the murres and my often unsuccessful attempts to catch them without getting caught first.  Jousting with one after another, I learned to respect their tenacity.  Even weak birds could be formidable.  During my final days at Grays Harbor, I overheard a coordinator instructing new recruits in the art of handling western grebes.  He believed the longer-necked, sharply-beaked species to be the most dangerous and difficult to control.  “Just be grateful we don’t have any cormorants,” he concluded.  “They are the worst.”

Before dawn on Christmas 1985, I took a ferry from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula and signed the volunteer roster at a gymnasium in Port Angeles, where a spill had just occurred.  All morning I prepared birds to be washed.  Before the first rinse, each one received preliminary veterinary care: antibiotic injections, protective salve for its eyes, and a careful beak swabbing to remove residual oil from its mouth.  Then the tedious scrubbing process began, with volunteers carrying birds back and forth from sudsy washtubs to the showers until every feather rinsed clean.

Volunteers at emergency spill clinics are generally divided into two groups: feeders who worked with cleaned birds, and washer show are confined to the locker rooms.  The people with the oiliest clothes work with the dirtiest birds and pass them onto cleaner volunteers as the washing process progresses.  At Port Angeles, I started with dirty birds; by noon, sticky oil had chewed holes through my rubberized overalls.  Here was proof of the corrosive properties of petrochemicals.  While I could not see its long term effect inside the birds at the clinic, I knew the oil on their feathers was deadly.  Unwashed, these creatures were helpless.  They could not fly, could not float, could not stay warm.

Pen and ink, Constance Perenyi for Interspecies Newsletter, 1992

Pen and ink, Constance Perenyi for Interspecies Newsletter, 1992

I, at least, could take off my useless overalls.  Once I had peeled to a cleaner layer, the washroom coordinator handed me a double-crested cormorant that had been washed and generally de-oiled.  My task was specific: to clean each feather on its head with a water-pik.  For hours, I sat on a folding chair with the bird balanced between my legs, and the Pik humming on a table next to us.  With one hand, I supported the cormorant’s neck.  With the other hand, I focused the water and combed across the feathers in short, methodical strokes.

I began the process cautiously, watching the bird while it in turn noted my every move.  Earlier, a veterinary assistant had closed its sharp beak so the bird could not bite or spear its handlers.  But when my charge began to blow bubbles through its elongated nostrils, I removed the band.  The cormorant instantly relaxed, and seemed more curious than dangerous.

At once, I realized this was an extraordinary opportunity.  I had handled captive birds at the zoo, and wild ones at other clinics, but had never examined one so closely.  I had relied on mounted specimens and photographs for details.  I had filled my head with facts and could, for example, recite the range of avian body temperature.  But until that day, the figures remained abstract.  As I sensed the cormorant’s damp heat radiating through my clothes, I experienced warm-bloodedness in a new way.  The bird and I exchanged body heat everywhere we touched.  I could feel impressions of webbed feet on my legs and feather marks all along the inside of my arms.

Unlike others around us, this bird appeared healthy and unafraid.  As it looked around the room, the cormorant seemed to watch the day

Pen and Ink, Constance Perenyi for Interspecies Newsletter, 1992

Pen and Ink, Constance Perenyi for Interspecies Newsletter, 1992

unfold as a spectacle rather than a trauma.  It was calm and seemed willing to cooperate, which enabled me to consider every feather tract I cleaned.  The more I contemplated the depth of its blackness, the more detail I perceived.  Points of turquoise outlined pale green eyes.  Burnt orange skin marked the bird’s throat in colorful, featherless contrast.  Against my skin, its snaky neck and armored feet felt reptilian.  I could even feel its small, flexible gular pouch.

Many to every distraction – watching other people, even checking the clock.  But as I worked with the cormorant, I became oblivious to the hectic activity around us.  I shut out the noise so I could  concentrate on my task, and it seemed as if the bird and I were the only beings in the room.  Outside, a few miles down the beach, state ecologists surveyed the oil slick and assessed its impact on a large population of overwintering birds.  None of us could reverse the damage, but I knew that by working on the problem at its most elemental level, I had found a way to make amends with a single bird.

I first understood my natural affinity for animals as a child, and at an early age, I promised to work on their behalf.  But my role as a defender was much clearer before I reached adulthood, before I was invested in a web of technology.  At one time, I could not imagine doing anything to harm another creature.  Now, as I try to minimize my own negative impact on the environment, I often feel defeated by the complexity of our time.  It is a challenge to remember the clarity and conviction of my childhood pledge.

My experience in Port Angeles reminded me of my earliest attachment to animals.  For five hours, I enjoyed the company of another being and now I almost regretted ending our time together.  Reluctantly, I finished and lowered the cormorant into a pool with the other birds.  This was the final test: if it could float, its feathers were oil free.  Success.  The bird swam off and the washroom volunteers cheered.  The cormorant looked strong, and after it regained energy and its natural oils, other volunteers would release it on a clean shoreline miles from where it had been found.

But release was weeks away, and I realized I would never know what happened to the bird.  The mortality rate of animals rescued from oil spills is depressingly high.  Even if they outlive capture and cleaning, many later succumb to lethal doses of ingested oil.  And of those released, few remain capable of reproduction.  I knew the statistics, but I did not dwell on them when I left the clinic.  I still like to think that the cormorant is alive, a survivor.  If a bird can be said to express a will to live, this one seemed to do so.

It is the hope of saving even a few animals that motivates volunteers at an oil spill clinic.  Confronted by death, we work hard to preserve life.  We do what we can, and in the process, are changed.  Like other volunteers, I  have returned home with a stronger commitment to conservation and a new appreciation of life.  In the end, I realize that my efforts with the birds have helped me more than I could ever hope to help the birds.

Double-crested Cormorant, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013

Double-crested Cormorant, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013