Monday, February 28, 2011

The Story of Spike

Two of the numerous animals under my care at work and the sole representatives of the mammal group, are Spike and Diesel, two rats. In this picture, Spike is the one on top. As you can see they are pretty much inseparable but they couldn't be much more different in personalities.

Spike is very nervous, very anxious, very shy and a total home body. He likes to spend the majority of his day tucked up in their cage, occasionally peeping out if a treat is offered. Diesel on the other hand is a total extrovert, he is into everything and demands attention from anyone who happens to be passing. He sulks if he doesn't get to ride around on my shoulder in the morning as I walk around the Museum checking on all the other animals and if he doesn't get his way he squeaks like a spoilt child! They have a very luxurious two storey cage set up, with a ladder between the two levels. During the day we take the top level off the cage and they have a free run, in and out of the cage and around the surrounding counter top where they have various tunnels and boxes and other little hide-outs. Of course if we ever try to work at this particular counter top then Diesel is immediately right in whatever it is we are trying to do, stealing pens, sheets of paper or anything else that takes his fancy!
Four weeks ago, on a day when I wasn't at the Museum, Spike had an accident. Someone startled him when he was sleeping and he panicked, ran blindly into the ladder, got stuck between two of the rungs and snapped his leg, really badly. Of course I took him off to the vet and the x-rays revealed that the tibia was in three pieces and the fibula was, well lets just say, pretty much a lost cause the two ends were so far apart! I was given three options, euthanasia, amputation or attempt to set it and try and let it heal. Rats are not long lived animals and so I did consider the first option but I just couldn't quite reconcile that because he had been injured through mishandling. I couldn't really cope with the thought of amputation either as it was his hind leg so that left me with the final option. But nothing is that simple really is it? What is the one thing that rats are renowned for? Chewing! Of course. The chances of a rat keeping a cast on long enough for a broken limb to heal are slim at best but I felt I owed him the chance to try at least. And so Spike came back to the Museum with his leg in a cast from the hip all the way down over his foot (he had also managed to dislocate his ankle when he broke his leg!)

I had to give him pain-killers and calcium medication twice a day for the first two weeks (remember my post about going to work in the blizzard? He was one of the reasons!) I also had to be meticulous in keeping his cage as clean and dry as possible. For any of you that haven't had a pet rat, trust me when I tell you they are prodigious pee-ers and poopers! And, of course, I had to keep one step ahead of him when he chewed the cast. We did a pretty good job and all the extra handling that he had to endure actually made him a lot more calm as the days went by. We developed a great bond, which is always one of the most rewarding parts of my job. The worst part of the whole thing was that he had to be kept separate from Diesel because Diesel would have chewed the cast off in two minutes flat! It was heart breaking to see Diesel spending hours each day sitting on top of Spikes little 'hospital cage.' I did let him drop in - quite literally - for brief visits from time to time but they had to be closely monitored because it was usually about thirty seconds before he started chewing on Spikes cast!

After two weeks, we went back to the vet to get a progress report, he had another x-ray and we could see that the tibia was starting to heal slowly but surely. It was only on this return visit that I learned that the vet techs had been taking bets on how many days Spike would take to chew his cast off! It gave me great pleasure to be able to prove them all wrong!
Another two weeks past. We stopped the pain killers but continued with the calcium and today, after four weeks, we went back to the vet again. This time Spike was sedated and x-rayed again. I was waiting to hear the outcome when I heard a cheer - Good Job Spike! The vet returned smiling, carrying a rather woozy Spike, just waking up - with his cast removed! His x-ray showed his leg healing well and they had taken his cast off for him. Needless to say I was delighted and couldn't wait to take him back to see his buddy.
First order of business - give the leg he hadn't seen for four weeks a very thorough clean.

Then - luxury of luxuries - he finally got to scratch his own ear (if a little tentatively) I have been doing it for him for the past four weeks and I am sure I didn't do anywhere near as good a job as he would do for himself.

And finally after all the rest of us had made a big fuss over him, he got to snuggle up with his best friend and take a well earned nap.

It will take him a while to strengthen the muscles in his leg again and put his full weight on it but he is certainly heading in the right direction.
And why did I wait until now to do this post? - well I wanted to be reasonably sure that the post would have a happy ending :)

Photo Credits - CJT

Sunday, February 20, 2011


As I am sure many of you already know, in Canada and North America, this is the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count. I always have very mixed feelings about the event because while I realize it is a very worthwhile project which gathers really useful information each year, inevitably, in Chicago when this weekend comes around the weather is totally frigid and the last thing you want to do is stand outside looking for birds.

However I do try to do my bit, even if I do have to dress up like the abominable snowman to do it. This week teased me, with temperatures in the 50's on Wednesday and Thursday but of course as soon as Friday came around and the count began, we plummeted back into the 20's with a brisk north easterly wind thrown in for good measure.

I lasted for an hour yesterday before my feet went numb and my fingers would no longer function well enough to focus my bins but I came home feeling very virtuous because I had done my count!
Lets just say, I don't think Cornell is exactly going to be set alight by the number or diversity of species I saw. The Goldeneyes were pretty though, bobbing around in a very churned up Lake Michigan.

Ring-billed Gull - 37
European House Sparrow - 26
Canada Goose - 21
Mallard - 16
Starling - 22
American Crow - 1
Common Goldeneye - 5
Rock Pigeon - 1
Lesser Scaup - 1
Common Merganser - 1

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It Had To Happen.................

Chicago is known for its horrible winters, endless weeks of sub-zero temperatures, lots of ice and gritty, lake-effect snow. I didn't really appreciate the difference in types of snow before moving here but trust me, lake-effect snow just feels like a total rip-off. It doesn't float down in big, downy flakes, it is tiny and hard. Not 'fun' snow at all. We don't usually get big snow storms, just almost daily bothersome blusters of this nasty old lake-effect.
This year has been quite amazing, we have watched as the east coast of the US has been pummeled with one monster snow storm after another. I think New York City is well over 50 inches so far. Even down in the far south, states that never normally see snow have been belted. We were in our usual state of permanent freeze but there was a definite lack of snow, a couple of inches here or there that quickly turned into ice but that was about it.
And then, this weekend the media started talking about the monster storm that was headed our way. A big blizzard that was going to envelope us for at least 24 hours. The hype built and built, names like 'snowmagedon,' 'snowpocalipse,' 'snowtorious B.I.G,' and even 'snowprah' started doing the rounds. Of course many people were very skeptical about the impending onslaught. My husband told me on a daily basis that the weather people didn't know what they were talking about etc, etc. And so we waited. Well it seems that the weather people did know what they were talking about after all because Tuesday at 3pm (exactly when they said it would) the storm arrived. And my oh my what a storm it was. I left work at 4pm for my short walk to get home and by the time I got in I was exhausted. I am usually totally wrapped up whenever I set foot outside at this time of the year anyway, with just my eyes visible peeping through the layers but as I struggled through the storm, the wind and the driving snow was so bad I actually got an 'ice cream headache' by the time I got home. My eyes were burning from the snow being blown so hard and it was a good job I knew my route by heart because I couldn't see the path at all.

So, safely ensconced at home we let the weather do its worst.
The main road along Lake Michigan in Chicago is the legendary Lakeshore Drive and by 8pm it was a parking lot of unimaginable magnitude.

Hundreds and hundreds of cars stuck in the ice and snow and the poor drivers unable to get out or go anywhere.

Then the thunder snow started - yes really a snow storm with thunder and lightening - quite impressive. The monster storm beat us hard all night and when we woke up next morning it was still howling with 70 mph winds whipping the snow into huge drifts.
Well my spoilt animals at work don't really care what the weather is like outside, they still expect their servants to come in and tend to their needs so, although the Museum was closed and no other staff would be coming in, I had to get out there and find my way into work! 'Oh joy - why am I not a librarian!!??' I put on as many layers as I could manage and set out to do battle with the elements.

The road outside our building was deep in snow and there were several buried cars

My first hurdle (quite literally) was to get over the massive wall of snow that the ploughs had pushed across the road junction.

Once I had swum/waded/waddled through that, there was only one route and that was straight down the middle of the road. Usually at this time of the morning this road would be a constant flow of heavy traffic.

When I had trudged down the road I was presented with this! Oh goody - another drift for me to swim through to get to the door of the Museum.

The wind had sculpted the snow into some beautiful dramatic shapes so when I needed to stop to catch my breath I got chance to appreciate them.

When I finally got inside, my first task was to go back outside - we have bird feeders which are used for various programs and there were some very desperate birds who were pretty pleased to see me. I filled all the feeders and then because I felt so bad for them I scattered a few scoops of seed on the ground too.

As I went about my daily tasks I carried my camera everywhere and tried to get pictures from all the windows. It was so peaceful having the Museum to myself :)

And then through the blizzard came an arctic explorer!

Actually it was my husband dropping by to say Hi as he made his way into work.

It was a perfect photo op'

Looks pretty dramatic doesn't it?

Back to work and snapping shots as I go along.

I worked through the day and tended to all my charges and by the end of the day as I set off home, the weather had cleared and the snow looked really beautiful.

The skies cleared and the beauty of it all was quite stunning.

The ducks even managed to find the aerator in the pond and looked quite content.

When I got home I was surprised to see from the window that Lakeshore Drive was still closed and there were still over 200 cars to be dug out.

As the sun set the high rise buildings cast shadows onto the snow on the frozen lake

The calm AFTER the storm.

We ended up with 20.2 inches of snow but because of the hurricane force winds it drifted in many places to be several feet deep. Definitely one for the record books, apparently the third worst storm in Chicago's history!

Photo Credits - CJT & DominickV