We did have fun baking ourselves on the street last Saturday at Hot Dogs in the Strip with the Animal Rescue League! It was so hot that we had to be careful of the animals—the kitties had to go back to the shelter—and even the humans were hiding inside the hot dog shop, but once the street fell into shade we had many more people to visit.
I was next to my friend Karen Litzinger, author of Heal Your Heart, who helped me to set up—and clean up when my tent blew down later in the day! I rarely take the large original paintings here, but when there’s a chance of marketing commissioned portraits it’s best to have a live one on hand. Nothing was broken, and only a frame on one of my photos was damaged in a way that I can use just for display or at home, so no great loss, though I did decide that I would finally purchase a real festival tent, not the cheap thing I’ve used for years and always had problems with.
I also got to meet several people I’d only corresponded with, and also bought a bag of cat food from a holistic practitioner who spent a few years developing her own pet food. I’ll be checking back with her after the kitties finish this bag to talk about her process of developing and manufacturing the food.
One of the vendors was offering spray-on tattoos, and a person had their dogs “tattooed”. Love the big flower! The decorate swirls on the other dog looked so natural that at first I didn’t realize they were a tattoo.
One of the dogs for adoption was indeed adopted by a couple who came to the event intending to find a dog, and they did. I’m not sure which dog it was because of all the shuffling, but I do know it was one of the pit bull mixes. There are so many in shelters and they are so hard to adopt that it’s always good to see one go home with a family.
The animals from the wildlife center had to wait because of the heat as well, so Martha the Demonstration Owl came to visit later in the day. She is a great-horned owl, and was found on the side of a road with a broken wing. She had apparently been coming in for a landing to scavenge some road kill on the berm when a car clipped the end of her wing. She was still alive and not in bad shape, but the wing had begun to heal with the bones twisted inside.
Martha’s handler explained that avian bones are very lightweight and hollow and can’t be re-broken and re-set as mammalian bones can be, so they just had to let the bones continue healing, but she can’t fly, so she can’t be released. Any animals that are rehabilitated that can’t be released for any reason are kept for the rest of their lives, though not all of them are pressed into service like Martha, though she doesn’t seem to mind.
Really, I couldn’t have posed this one better, either. Dickie settled down at the other end of the row of books, in the photography section of all places, right under The Cat in Photography. Is it Tabby Tuesday? Here’s a nice big tabby for you!
Dickie only has one more month with me until he moves back with his mom on October 1. She’s counting the days until she’s in her own place and has him back, but I’ll miss him, and I think Kelly will, too. You’ll probably see him a little more often in the next month for that reason, including a little article about him.
Also in that section of books are my collection of the photo essays by Hans Silvester, Cats in the Sun, Kittens in the Sun, The Mediterranean Cat and more, all of which were incredibly inspiring to me as I journeyed toward what I do today, and other books about feline photography or including a lot of felines that I use for visual reference. Sometimes, it’s just neat to look at pictures for a while.
Well, maybe my cats aren’t the biggest readers and books are just a big sleeping pill for them, or maybe they really can absorb the content if they sleep with their heads on the books.
I’ve done some (lots) of reorganizing (cleaning) lately (while I’m eradicating fleas), and I finally got around to putting my cat books in order on this mahogany triple dresser that doubles as a very attractive file cabinet/storage unit in my office.
You know how kitties are—they have to investigate everything new and “try it on”, meaning placing themselves in or on the object, walking, bathing, playing and sleeping in the new/renewed area. Unfortunately for me, they were so darned cute for several days that I now have several hundred photos of nearly the entire household interacting with the books. They’re still at it over there, but I’ve got work to do so I just can’t look at what they’re doing.
I see a few paintings coming out of this series too.
So the big story this summer has been…fleas.
Yes, we have them here, though very many fewer than a few weeks ago. We have a few fleas here early every summer, but an infestation is highly unusual, usually brought in by a flea-infested foster that can’t be treated for some reason and very difficult to battle in a small house with nine cats.
The ultimate source of the infestation was a surprise. Poor Cookie is highly allergic and is half naked, but Peaches, the weak link in the household, reached a dangerous point as the flea numbers escalated. Everyone is okay now, though we had to take some extreme measures to fight them off, indoors and out.
Where Do Fleas Come From?
Fleas begin in the great outdoors, even in the nicest yard, and don’t think that simply because you don’t let your pet outside, or it’s only outside for a short while, that fleas won’t find them. Fleas are tiny and can hop amazing distances to get to a warm body for their blood meal, they can ride in on your own body though they don’t generally feed on humans, and encountering another animal that has fleas either on a walk outdoors or even at the veterinarian’s office can infest your pet without it ever setting a paw in the back yard.
Integrated Pest Management
I’ve always taken one or more of my cats into my back yard, so I’ve always included fleas in my pest management. Adult fleas are very particular about moisture and temperature, but flea eggs can live through a lot of punishment and still hatch and carry on the next generation so they need to be managed from year to year, not just for the summer.
Aside from the dangers of insecticide toxicity, using an insecticide generally kills off all the insects in an area, not just the ones you are targeting. Where fleas are concerned, an insecticide just kills the adult fleas which are only about 10% of the total flea population. There may be some residual left to kill the eggs and larvae as they mature into adults, but with unpredictable weather it’s often washed away before it does any good.
Pest insects have adapted to reproduce more quickly than their prey so the fleas will return long before their predators return, resulting in a more serious infestation than before. Without any predators you really need to keep applying the chemical, but all you do is knock down the numbers, never winning the game, and often completely kill off all predators, and not just those of fleas, while building up toxic levels in your soil.
It’s obvious that species have been kept in balance for millennia by some means outside of human controls. I am a Master Gardener and began years ago to start my own plants, identify seedlings, diagnose pests and diseases and build soil. I manage my little yard as a wildlife habitat, friendly to all native species as well as the plants I choose to grow and have always called on the forces of nature to manage the populations as an ecosystem, allowing it to find its own balance, and this has worked for managing fleas as well as other insect pests in my lawn, vegetable garden, flower beds and natural areas.
The two basic steps in managing any pest that outgrows its controls is to find out where it lives and destroy that habitat to any extent possible, and then find its natural predators and encourage them to inhabit and flourish, forever if possible.
Fleas live in moist, shady areas in the yard, in the thatch in your lawn, debris piles, leaf litter, cord wood stacks and even under your deck or porch unless it’s completely dry. They’ve often overwintered in these areas and with the moisture of spring eggs start hatching as soon as it’s warm enough and shady after trees and shrubs have leafed out, about when temperatures rise above 60 degrees at night or 70 degrees during the day.
One of the first things I do in spring, way before fleas hatch, is clear off all the debris in the yard and toss it in the compost pile, which as the materials break down heats up to a point that kills any eggs or seeds within it. I leave native plants standing for wildlife through the winter, but in spring it’s all taken down, even mowed if possible, then raked in order to remove possible pest habitat (including plant diseases which may have overwintered). If you don’t have a compost pile you can throw the material away in a bag, but just don’t keep it around, piled in a corner, or it can become a breeding ground for everything that laid eggs in it last year. This helps immensely with reducing the initial populations and you’ve also destroyed a lot of eggs and habitat for many insect pests.
This also helps to delay the onset of fleas in your yard, but they’re going to start hatching some time regardless of chemical or organic controls, so be prepared with methods to manage flea populations through their life cycle.
Manage Areas Fleas Prefer
To start with, try to minimize or eliminate damp and densely shaded areas in your yard—underneath a shrub, for instance, often a favorite place for pets to hang out on hot days because it’s cooler and the soil is a little damp. It’s absolutely flea heaven, especially if you’ve either left the leaf litter from last year or added some decorative bark or wood chip mulch. This one area can support three stages of the flea: eggs can be laid here, the larvae can live on organic matter, and they can build their cocoons here as well, hatching into adult fleas that feed on your kitty taking a nap in the shade.
My yard tends to be very damp and I also have a slug problem (that’s an understatement), and for years I’ve sprinkled diatomaceous earth (DE)in all the moist shady areas for the slugs that feast all night, also taking care of a good many fleas. This product is not soil at all but the shells of diatoms, tiny sea creatures, crushed to a fine powder. Sea shells are actually formed of minerals and while the powder looks like dust it is actually very tiny, very sharp particles that cut into the exoskeleton of the flea, causing it to dehydrate and die. It does the same thing to slugs, but other creatures, from earthworms to birds, simply digest it with no ill effect, and it’s completely a physical effect with no chemical effect at all.
Diatomaceous earth has a short-term effect outdoors, though, because it mixes with soil and other organic matter, diluting its effect, and is washed away by rain or even heavy dew, but generally sprinkling it weekly in damp shady areas through the summer is a good plan. Just make sure it’s the DE intended for gardening use NOT pool use because this has chemicals added, and wear a mask when you sprinkle it because prolonged inhalation can cause some respiratory discomfort.
At one time I used pyrethrum-based products to control fleas and other insect pests indoors and out, and while pyrethrins break down quickly in sunlight and are diluted by water, tests later showed that if they are not in conditions that break them down they can build up in soil and in the home, and can be toxic to some flora and fauna outdoors, and children and pets indoors. Many organic gardeners quit using them, though they are still sold for outdoor treatment as well as specifically flea control products. I have included a link to the CDC report at the end of this article.
Modify Your Lawn
Also manage your yard, especially your lawn, to encourage flea predators. You can apply beneficial nematodes to damp and shady areas as well as the DE, especially where you can’t change the conditions by trimming shrubs or cleaning up debris such as a bed of heavy ground cover like ivy or pachysandra, or where you’ve landscaped with mulch, sand, gravel or small stones. You may need to reapply every year or two; this was my experience, but they definitely keep populations down while they persist.
You can also encourage the flea’s natural predators to come and live in your lawn and garden. Insect predators include ants, spiders and ground beetles, other species include amphibians such as toads and salamanders, reptiles such as garter snakes, and even birds that feed on the ground.
Hmmm… you don’t like spiders and snakes, and everything else sounds like something you don’t want anywhere near your house, except maybe the birds? Trust me, they are much more interested in their natural diet than they are in you, and unless you go looking you’d never know they’re there—except that you’d have fewer fleas and other pest insects generally.
Welcome them by managing your lawn in a way that might be different from the typical grass-only buzz cut, incorporating native plants and herbs and allowing your lawn to grow a little taller. My lawn is only about half grass, while the rest is a mixture of short native plants and ground covers, plus opportunistic peppermint, pennyroyal and marjoram escaped from my herb gardens and the seedlings for next year’s forget-me-nots, daisies and other biennials and spring ephemerals. This diversity of flora encourages a diversity of fauna and eliminates large areas of one type of habitat so nothing has a chance to overpopulate.
Because I have less grass, I only have to cut the lawn about once a month after May. The native plants have a predetermined growth habit, most of them staying below six inches, and after the spring flush of growth the grass grows much more slowly. I can cut it higher than two inches, the minimum height to encourage ants and spiders, the main predators of fleas. Cutting the grass taller and less often helps the predators develop habitat and do their job on the fleas.
I also feed birds year-round, and while I always credit them with keeping vegetable and flower pests under control, I know they also peck around through the grass eating fleas.
Even if you’ve done all this you can still expect a few fleas, but you’re suddenly totally infested—what else can it be?
It’s that darned squirrel that hangs out on your deck, or the groundhog that’s burrowed underneath it—or the opossum that nested in your piled-up porch furniture until spring, or the little field mice and voles who sacrifice themselves to your cats in the basement.
I had sprinkled the house with diatomaceous earth, bathed and combed the cats regularly, washed everything washable, swept everywhere just about daily, removed throw rugs and pillows and such, tossed non-washable things into a hot dryer, and removed as much from my house as possible. This was all I needed to do for years and the flea population never reached an infestation.
But this year the fleas kept coming back, and increasing all the time. Where were they coming from?
I began to notice that when I walked out on my deck, my legs were immediately covered with fleas, a dozen or more at a time. Fleas don’t fly, they jump, and while they can jump far, in a situation like this you can move around and check the numbers of fleas that jump on your skin (or wear a pair of white socks so you can see them easier) to help pinpoint an area of infestation. I started stepping around the deck, knocking fleas off my legs into a cup of water, then stepping again to see where numbers seemed the worst.
Most wild animals harbor a few fleas, and some species are typically infested. My squirrels spend about half their time scratching, and wild rabbits, chipmunks, gophers, mice and voles are also heavily infested with fleas. The squirrels hang out on my deck trying to get into the bird seed, the rabbits hop around near the basement door, and I always have a juvenile groundhog who excavates under my deck before I can trap it, chipmunks run around chirping everywhere, and field mice and voles really do show up in my basement.
And I really did have an opossum on my deck this winter. Being nocturnal, we didn’t cross paths though I saw her through the back door now and then. With the unusually heavy ice and snow I didn’t have the heart to encourage her to find another home, and I didn’t unpack all my deck furniture this year, so I have no idea how long she stayed.
It was the area right in front of the door—right over the groundhog den under the deck—and on one side of that unmoved pile of things for my deck. The groundhog had left my yard to eat someone else’s vegetable garden, but left the fleas behind. I began deconstructing the pile of porch furniture and found evidence of nesting, though not recent. In both places, a heck of a lot of fleas.
So this was the source of my infestation, right outside the door that I kept open for most of the summer, locking the screen door at night and when I was away. Fleas could hop in when I opened the door, and ride inside as I walked in and out the door. My basement door has a space at the bottom because the concrete walk just outside is lifted and the bottom of the door jammed against it, so I trimmed the door.
Normally every spring I clean off my deck, sweep, wash and apply water-based waterproofing to the wood, then move things back, but this spring’s schedule didn’t allow the time. Once I cleaned off the deck, swept and washed it as well as hosed down all the items that were there, the constant re-infestation stopped. Whew!
But the infestation really reached a critical point in early July, and I didn’t discover this until August. Dealing with the effects inside was another story entirely, which I’ll write about in part 2.
Some Resources for Chemical-Free Outdoor Flea Control
You can get ten pages of results or more in an internet search on flea control, diatomaceous earth, pyrethrins and so on, but I try to find studies or information from non-commercial sources to cite.
Yardener.com has a series of articles about dealing with fleas in your yard, and the article about preventing fleas in the future is especially informative—plus the site is a great resource for dealing with all sorts of pest problems in your yard.
Even though this article is from 1986, it gives a brief history of the use of diatomaceous earth from a study project at McGill University that is still applicable today about the effects and usage of DE.
CDC Report on pyrethrins and pyrethroids: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp155.pdf
If you’re interested in more information about Backyard Wildlife Habitats, please visit the Backyard Wildlife Habitat page on my site with articles on developing your habitat and articles showing the photos, paintings and sketches I’ve done that were inspired but my backyard.
Something about the light today reminds me of being out on my deck with Stanley, so I’ve posted one of my favorite photos of him.
This photo doesn’t show you much about Stanley, but for me it is a reminder of how my cats have inspired me at every moment since I’ve lived with them, training me to keep my eyes open and always be ready for that unique image, keeping my creative spirit alive and my creative intellect in top condition, in a way living two lives at once, to live the moment, and to record the moment.
I often called Stanley “Stripe” because he was a tabby, and in this photo the confluence of all those stripes was just breathtaking. Straight geometric stripes in the shadows from my deck rail coming in at an obtuse and unsettled angle, the deck boards themselves and the gaps between at a normal and comforting angle, and striped Stanley breaking all the straight lines as he curled in a perfect circle; I could never have posed this or composed this, but what a moment to remember. And if Stanley had not been there I probably would have noticed the shadows but not taken the photo, so I have him to thank for this moment.
Sunshine and fresh air is a perfect tonic for an old cat. This was from Stanley’s last summer with me, when he was “somewhere in his twenties” and we were keeping the chronic renal failure at bay with doses of subcutaneous fluids, enticing foods, and a morning visit to the back yard and a nap on the deck every day the weather permitted. Stanley forgot all about feeling a little queasy and tired as he pranced around the back yard from bush to tree to post, smelling the messages—downloading his “pee-mail” and uploading his reply, as I always called it. Back up on the deck, a little bath and quick nap in the sun, then inside to eat ravenously as if nothing was the matter.
I have decades of memories of Stanley; he came to me several years into adulthood and lived with me for 21 years, suffering from chronic urinary issues for which he had obviously been violently punished. A sweet, silly, friendly kitty underneath it all, it took years to wear down the aftereffects of Stanley’s early abuse. But he appears in many, many images, including my painting, “After Dinner Nap”, which inspired many commissioned portraits, but before that it inspired me to find a way to share my feline inspirations with the world. Thank you, Stanley.
It’s a street fair for the animals this Saturday as the Animal Rescue League takes over a block of the Strip District! Join us from noon to 7:00 p.m. at 2701 Penn Avenue.
Seventeen vendors will be offering things for your pets, things for you, information and of course the ARL will be there with cats and dogs who are ready to go home with you!
The Animal Rescue League is also offering games and crafts for kids, and several musicians will sit in during the day.
I’ll be right next to Karen Litzinger, author of Heal Your Heart, and I’m looking forward to seeing a few other animal-themed vendors I haven’t seen yet this year.
If you’re in Pittsburgh, I hope to see you there! And I hope to have great adoption numbers to report, too!
The event benefits both the shelter and the ARL Wildlife Center.
Us? Up here? What are we doing up here? Well…we thought we’d flip through your CDs and see if there is anything more interesting to listen to than your boring classical music. We’ll try not to knock them off the top of the entertainment center.
(What they’re thinking is, “We’re a couple of cats, what do you think we’re doing up here?”)
Giuseppe and Jelly Bean think they are pretty smart in discovering the top of the entertainment center. Honest, I thought I could have a small area in the house where I could store things my clever kitties couldn’t get into. I actually had the front edge blocked off so they couldn’t jump up, but someone decided to risk it and discovered the world of my hats and baskets and CDs and other stuff I’d tossed up there. What was I thinking?
Labor Day marks the beginning of pigeon shoot season in Pennsylvania. Because the legislature again has not acted yet again, tens of thousands of birds will suffer this fall and winter. These cruel contests have to end – the animal suffering from just one shoot is pathetic and these shoots go on at least twice a month!
Currently there is legislation that would put an end to live pigeon shoots in the last state where they are openly practiced – Pennsylvania legislators need to continue to hear from constituents! The Judiciary Committee has not released the bill, so compassionate legislators are working to amend it.
Please take a moment to email your state representative and state senator to urge support and a vote for legislation or ammendments that would end live pigeon shoots, and stop the use of animals launched from traps or tethered for target practice. We’ve made it easy for you by linking to an alert – just click here
If you do not know what a ‘live pigeon shoot’ entails:
- Live pigeons are released from boxes called “traps” to be shot from 30 yards away
- Five traps are lined up in front of the competitor
- Sometimes electrified to make the tame birds fly, the traps pop open one at a time in a random sequence.
- The shooter gets points for each shot bird who lands within a large ring. After each round, participants – sometimes children – collect wounded and dead animals.
- If the suffering pigeon is still alive, the collector will sometimes cut the birds head off with gardening shears, snap the animal’s head off or slam her against the ground before tossing the animal into a barrel full of dead and dying pigeons.
- Often, wounded birds make it outside the ring to the surrounding area and suffer for days before succumbing to their injuries
The only shoots known to occur regularly are in Pennsylvania. Time is running out, and we need your help to finally pass this bill. Thank you.