Dear Miss Shirley Shirley,

On our morning walk today, Little Gingersnap! and I saw an opossum for the first time! Of course, Ginger wanted to come right up to it and say hello. I was a little more skeptical because it was the biggest rat I have ever seen in my life — not that I have actually seen a rat before — but it was still the biggest rodent ever!

Well, that was when Mama L. said that possums are not really rodents. They are one of the most misaligned and misunderstood animals since most people think of them as ugly and nasty pests. So I did a bit of research, and I am going to tell you a bit about these interesting creatures now. Mama L. said you enjoy useless trivia almost as much as she does, and I need a new Number One Fan since mine has been MIA for sometime. You don’t have to do much as a Number One Fan; love and adoration is all I ask, and an occasional note will suffice.

<Photo from National Geographic Society>

So, here are a few opossum factoids. For (a lot) more information, this link will take you to Mama’s favorite Wikipedia.

1. Contrary to popular thought, an opossum (or, possum) is a marsupial, not a rodent, although both orders belong to the class mammal. It is the only marsupial in North America. A typical opossum is the size of a cat with grey to black fur, black eyes, pink pointed nose, feet and tail, and black ears.

2. The female carries and nurses her young in her marsupium (pouch) until they are about 2 to 3 months old; then they are carried on her back another 1 to 2 months whenever they are away from the den. Eventually they become too heavy to hang on during these trips and one by one fall off. By the time this happens, the young opossum is fully weaned and able to forage for himself.

3. Usage of the name was first published in 1610. The word means “white dog” or “white beast/animal”.

4. Opossums show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other pit vipers.They are immune to most contagious and viral diseases.

5. Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs, and only about one in eight hundred opossums are infected with this virus. This is due to their very robust and efficient immune system and lower body temperature. There is far less of a risk of infection from opossums than from house pets.

6. Opossums may hiss or growl and show their 50 sharp teeth (more than any other North American mammals) when frightened, but, in reality, they are gentle and placid. They prefer to avoid all confrontations and wish to be left alone. When they are frightened and unable to flee, they may fall into an involuntary shock-like state “playing ‘possum”, which is similar to fainting. They can remain “dead” from 1 minute to 6 hours, and can be poked, prodded, and carried away without any reaction.

7. They are omnivorous. Their diet includes insects, snails, rodents, berries, over-ripe fruit, grasses, leaves, and carrion; occasionally they will eat snakes, ground eggs, corn or other vegetables.

8. They are very adaptable and are able to live wherever water, food, and shelter exist. At home in trees, possums use their prehensile tails to help stabilize position when climbing. It does not, however, hang by its tail. They are also very good swimmers!

9. They are one of the shortest lived mammals for their size — typically 2 to 4 years. They are killed by many predators: humans (and cars), dogs, cats, owls, and larger wildlife.

10. Many people consider the opossum a filthy animal, in part because of his mousy gray coat but also because he’s often seen foraging through trash cans and is known to eat carrion. In truth, however, the opossum is one of the cleanest animals around. They groom and bathe themselves meticulously, as scrupulously as the most finicky house cat, and have even been observed to stop in the midst of eating to clean themselves several times before finishing. The only thing he’s missing is a dinner napkin!

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Dear Baron Rousemüncher,

Today was a beautiful day with sunny skies and a mild breeze. The weather people said that we may have had a record — 73 degrees — and it’s still technically winter for a few more weeks! The Mamas don’t mind at all (and neither do we), although they both got sick from this change in weather.

Last week Mama L. came down with a two or three day flu. She was riding her bicycle home when she actually felt the bad winds entering her body, between the shoulder blades. She told Amy Lee this story and Amy said that she is living testament to ancient Chinese beliefs that bad winds enter one’s body through either side of T-2. Or the ankles. Mama told us that back when she was very young, her Grandma would do the coining to get rid of the bad wind. In Vietnamese it is called “cạo giὀ”, or literally, “scratch the wind”.

Now Mama M. is sick too. She has bronchitis, so completely different from what Mama L. had. But it is still wind-related. She had to go to urgent care tonight to get some medicine because she wouldn’t stop coughing. That was because Mama M. went to some gala event over the weekend and stayed out too late. And she wasn’t dressed adequately against the wind. Then she missed hiking with all of us the next day and Auntie Juni is still mad at her. We had a great time hiking though — this place might even be better than Redwood Regional Park because it is so wide open. Mama L. doesn’t know what it’s called, but it’s up in the hills overlooking San Leandro.

With the weather getting nicer, Mama L. has been wanting to spend more and more time outside. We don’t mind at all, because we get to keep her company and help out with the gardening even though she usually protests with our choice of activity. She’s been doing a lot of reading and research on small spaces, and has decided that this is the year that she is going to grow everything. And she’s going to grow them all in containers, not in the ground. She even decided that she would plant them according to favorable moon phases.

We thought Mama L. had gone off the deep end, when she exclaimed that you would have been proud to see this bountiful harvest as she carried a big armful of chard into the house! She had grown three varieties of Rainbow Chard from little seedlings. She had also grown some beets in the same planter, and the leaves are nearly as big as the chard. The picture shows a mixture of all the pretty greens. The chard just seems to keep producing greens, as long as she keeps harvesting the leaves every so often. And they seem to get bigger too! She had thought they were supposed to be replanted every season, but so far it has lasted through two.

This season, Mama L. gave up the idea of building more wooden planters out of the extra wood we had in the garage. That would have required too much work, she said, and she was getting antsy to get started. So Mama L. purchased several small galvanized tubs and punched holes in them for drainage. Then she lined the bottom of each tub with an inch of drain rock. Then came several layers of rich soil and coconut coir fiber. She read somewhere that this is actually even better than peat moss, rockwool, vermiculite, perlite or pumice. And it’s ecologically good as well. It is made from compressed coconut fiber, and has a very good balance of wetting and aeration and a resistance to bacteria and fungus growth. It holds 8-9 times its weight of water and has a high nutrient-absorption capacity. After she brought a huge bale of it home, she went crazy and started adding loosened chunks of it to all the containers. She said it’s probably the best admendment she’s ever added to the clayey soil we have. From the look of things, we will have lots of yummy veggies to eat soon.

Last weekend she planted cauliflower and broccoli and red cabbage and collard greens and peas and bunching onions. This past weekend, she planted have several varieties of lettuce, three different kinds of carrots with really great names (“Cosmic Purple”, “Chatenay”, “Solar Yellow”), two types of radishes including a “Japanese Long Scarlet”, and some more beets. Except for the lettuce, the carrots and the radishes were seed-sown. She’s a little nervous about those, because she’s not had much success with starting things from seeds. Maybe the coco coir fiber will help.

Here is a picture of the birds commenting on Mama’s gardening techniques.

 

Dear Diary,

Mama M. went to Los Angeles to visit Auntie Erin, so she didn’t get to share any of the fun with us this weekend. Yesterday we went to visit Uncle Brian and Cousin Chester. We haven’t seen them in a while. Chester is not yet a year old but he is gigantic. He outweighs both Madeleine and I together. We had a nice time playing ball together, until it was time to snuggle up and watch a movie. Chester tried to hone in on the action by climbing all over Mama L., but Madeleine and I weren’t too keen on that. We stayed there until almost midnight.

Today was an awesome day! It was one of those sunny-misty sort of day where the Sun couldn’t make up His mind. Mama said it was one of the most gorgeous days she has seen. First thing this morning, Mama made all of us scrambled eggs and spinach and chicken sausage for breakfast! After breakfast, Mama L. took us to Citizen Canine Wags and Wuv 2012 Fundraising Event. Uncle Brian and Chester showed up too. The fundraising was for shelter dogs who haven’t been adopted yet. And there was a Basset Hound Rescue Group. I have never met a Basset Hound before. Wow! They are even bigger than Chester. It was a lot of fun — there were so many people and dogs and so many things going on that I was kind of nervous at first. But then Mama L. got us a hot dog to share and everything was just fine after that.

Then we went to the cemetary for a long walk. We love the cemetary! There’s a nice big patch of grass where the Mamas usually let us off leash, and we get to chase each other around like crazy. It was really nice and quiet there today, hardly anybody around. Mama let us take our time, and I even got to talk with several squirrels.

When we came home, Mama started cooking coz she got a brand new freezer. Mama M. has been telling everybody about Mama L’s cooking so now she has to cook for six people everyday. She doesn’t mind at all, but she just doesn’t have any room in the old freezer so she had to get a brand new one. Mama says that it is 3.5 cubic feet and the temperature ranges from 5F to -15F. It’s super quiet and energy efficient. I just hope I find some dog food in there.

The chickens at Park Day School were out today when we went on our evening walk! The white one is my favorite! She always come over to say hello. The other ones run away from me when I try to speak to them. Madeleine doesn’t like them at all because she said that she was supposed to be a hen. I really don’t understand her sometimes.

When we came home, Mama L. gave us a bath with some of the sample lavender shampoo she got from the event earlier today. We smell wonderful and we are very huggable! Then she went over to Auntie Juniper’s and Uncle Steven’s because they came back from Half Moon Bay with some crabs. Fresh off the boat! Mama L. later said they were some of the best tasting and biggest crab she has ever seen! We weren’t invited but that was ok because we are doggone tired! It’s been a wonderful long day.

Dear Journal,

Today I learned the shocking truth about how I came to be, when Mama M. let it slipped that I was supposed to be a hen. Well, a couple of hens, specifically the egg-laying kind. Apparently a few years ago, Mama M. was trying to figure out what to get for Mama L. for her birthday present, and they decided that it would be neat to have backyard chickens. The Mamas started doing all this research on the types of hens and dug up all sorts of interesting facts. They even went to a local feed store to buy some chicks, but the brood they wanted wasn’t going to be ready for a few more weeks. They found out that within the City of Oakland, they can have as many chickens as they want, as long as the chickens are enclosed and at least 20 feet away from neighbors. No roosters are allowed within city limits, but the Mamas said roosters don’t lay eggs anyway. They even did all this research into building their own chicken coops and where to place it in the yard. With urban farming becoming more and more common, chickens are quite popular where we live now. Little Sis and I see them all the time on our daily walks.

The only reason why they did not get the chickens was because the Mamas were afraid that the raccoons and the rats would get into the cage. Mama M.’s friend Doug had told her about the time when the rats got in his cage and chewed off all the chickens’ feet. Mama L. was so upset when she heard this that Mama M. said we can always go to our local store up the street to buy eggs. Perhaps Mama L. might want a puppy instead?

Obviously the rest is history. Mama L. found my picture on some internet site. My name wasn’t Madeleine then; I was called “December”. I was named after a stupid month, and not just any month, it had to be the last month of the year. The coldest, darkest, wettest most miserable month of the year.

Homemade Dog Food

What started this whole thing was my discovery of making chicken stock in a pressure cooker. I was really impressed with the quality of the stock — the deepness of color, the richest of taste — and the only ingredients used were chicken (some meat but mostly bones) and water. I still use this method for making stock for us (humans) or to start a big pot of chicken vegetable soup. It makes for a good hearty dinner when you’re pressed for time during the week. Especially during the winter time.

Could you do this with a regular cooking pot? Well, maybe for stock, yes. But here’s where it gets really interesting. It doesn’t matter whether you are cooking chicken or pork or beef — if it’s meat it will retain its shape and texture. In other words, even if you cook the meat for an hour, it still looks tastes feels smells like meat. It doesn’t disintegrate into an undistinguishable mush. However, the bones (while still retaining its shape), become so soft that they will crumble if crushed between your fingers. (Keep this in mind, when you read further down.)

Anyway, when I started reading up on nutrition for dogs, I realized just how many sources there are out there. Some were very useful, some were conflicting. Most of the disagreement seems to stem from whether or not you should feed your dog a raw or a cooked diet. All sources seem to agree that “homemade”, whether raw or cooked, would be much better than store-bought pre-processed food, no matter how good or popular the name brand. I opted for the cooked version because most raw sites keep referring to a “natural wild ” diet. My dogs are not wild. Well, in their minds, they may think they’re wild. But in my mind, they have been domesticated for thousands of years. If they were left in their “wild” state in an urban environment, most dogs would likely scavenge around garbage cans.

So, here are my somewhat-scientifically-backed-up opinions on canine cuisine:

Except for certain no-no items such as chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions, most dog food requirements are identical to human food.They need FRESH food, just like humans do. They need VARIETY, just like humans do. They need BALANCE, just like humans do.

That said, the main differences between dogs and humans are that dogs need more of the protein and less of the vegetables and much much less of the carbohydrates. And, they need much much more calcium than we do.

In terms of proportion, meat and other animal products should constitute at least HALF the diet. I used this ratio: 1/2 meat, 1/3 veggies, 1/6 whole grain and/or rice. Here meat = chicken, pork, fish, beef, lamb, turkey. Although I must confess that I only cook the first four since I don’t like lamb or turkey much. (Remember, when you go shopping for yourself, just pick up extra for your dogs.)

For vegetables, dogs can and should eat most everything. Dark leafy greens are on the top of the list. But here are some others that your pups will like:  broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, turnips, rutabaga, celery, cucumber, bell peppers, zucchini, summer squashes, carrots, peas, beans. Spinach and swiss chard can be fed in limited amounts. Sweet potatoes are excellent as well.

Some other foods that you might want to incorporate into their diets are organ meat (liver, kidney, heart, green tripe), as well as some dairy products such as eggs and yogurt and cottage cheese. I freeze-dry chicken livers for the girls and add a little bit everyday. Some sources say that liver should constitute 5% or so of their daily diet.

In terms of balance, think of food as a two-week range rather than every meal. As long as you feed a wide variety of different foods, there is no need to make every meal “complete and balanced”. Feed your dog how you would feed yourself. Every now and then, indulge them a little. It’s ok to give them a burger and fries once in a blue moon.

Probably the most common mistake in home-cooking is that people often underestimate just how much calcium dogs need. Let’s put it this way: they need a lot. It is actually more complicated than I can explain, because you have to balance the calcium with the appropriate amount of phosphorus. Phosphorus is typically provided by the meat. Which means, the more meat, the more phosphorous, the more calcium required. And then it’s not just the calcium, but the also the type of calcium (“elemental” calcium is what you are after.) And, if you buy regular and not organic, there’s a whole host of other stuff you have to account for. (Who knew that they add arsenic to chicken to help them grow. This is why I buy only organic stuff now.)

Anyway, all this research was giving me a headache. I remember growing up and feeding our dogs whatever food we had left over (and yes, sometime with garlic in it!) and they always did fine. But now that I am THE human adult responsible for these furry four-legged things, I wanted to make sure that I am the best Mama L. in the world! So, I decided to make the dogs their own food by using the pressure cooker. It takes care of all of the above requirements. Even with buying only organic food, I am still saving a lot of money than buying store-bought. And, my girls tell me all the time that I am better than any Iron Chef they have ever met.

Your pressure cooker and the required cooking time per type of food will probably vary from mine, depending on brand, size, etc. I think I have an older version of this one: Fagor Splendid 10-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner. Naturally, you would follow your manufacturer’s recommendations. Below is what I would do for a chicken meal. (You can do this for any meat, just keep the proportion in mind.) This is quite a bit of food, btw. When I make a batch this big, the dogs get about 2 weeks’ worth (one dinner per dog per  day). I usually put them in several containers and freeze what the girls can’t eat in a few days.

Steps:

1. Put whole or quartered (easier later) chicken in pressure cooker. Put enough water in cooker to just cover the chicken. Lock the lid, set it to the highest pressure (mine comes in three pressure setting), and cook over medium high heat for 15 minutes. For clarification, the 15-minute timer starts after the pop-up indicator pops up telling you that the internal pressure is where you want it to be.)

2. Meanwhile, chop up your veggies into small bite-size chunks. (My girls are about 1/2-inch chunks.) Set aside.

3. When the 15 minutes are up, quick cool your pressure cooker (again, follow your manufacturer’s instructions.) Take the chicken meat off the bones. Return only the bones to the pressure cooker (broth still in it), lock the lid, set to the highest pressure, and cook for an hour.

4. Quick cool, or let cool. Take all the bones out, but leave the liquid. Add your veggies, lock lid, set to medium pressure, and cook for 5 minutes.

5. When the bones are cool enough for you to handle, chop (or grind) until it turns into a fine meal. With chicken bones, this usually means both ends of the drumstick and a substantial amount of “middle”. I toss away bone pieces that don’t mush easily. If you cook the bones for an hour, though, almost all of it is mushable.

6. Combine everything together and stir well. At this point, I also add chopped blueberries or cranberries, a few dashes of Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids, a small scoop of flaxseed meal, and sometimes a small handful of kelp for essential minerals. If you had enough liquid for a broth, it will resemble a soup or a stew. I generally don’t cook the grains in the pressure cooker, as I haven’t quite figured out how NOT to turn it into mush. Instead, the ladies are served the meat/veggies stew over a bed of white rice.

Again, “meat” here means meat + bones. If you were cooking salmon, for example, you would include the entire chunk of fish, fins bones and all…

Here is a picture of Gingersnap! helping me clean the pressure cooker. On Ambergris Caye in Belize, the island dogs are called “pot lickers”.

Dear Auntie Peggy,

Today on our walk, we saw two Golden Retrievers. They were really big, compared to us, but that’s not why it was an odd thing for me to tell you. They were shaved, Auntie Peggy, except for one long strip of hair running from their heads to their tails! Mama L. said it’s like a mohawk, except that it’s not on the head. I wanted Mama to take a picture for you, but she said she didn’t want to embarrass us in front of those dogs. She said there’s nothing wrong with the way they look, and that anyone could dress however they want. Personally, I thought they look kinda naked, and I hope their humans won’t bundle them up in big sweaters like our Mamas do. And then I hope they won’t think about shaving us like that coz I like the way I look now.

We were inspired by our friend Bassa to tell the world the things that we see around our neighborhood. Bassa usually has interesting stories to tell about her town in Tbilisi, Georgia. Her Tall Person takes pictures on their daily walk. Mama L. usually has her camera with her, and when we see something unique, we would ask her to take a picture for us. She refuses to take pictures of dead things, though, much to Big Sis’s disappointment, but here are some favorites.

This succulent is huge, bigger than a dog, and is also flowering. I don’t know how long it took for the flower to get that big and long, but Mama L. says that it’s at least 20 feet long, with the arch and all. There were bees all over it, so she wouldn’t let Madeleine and me close. You remember Madeleine’s bee-sting incident, don’t you?

Here’s a persimmon tree that had lost all its winter leaves. Only the fruit remained on the tree. Mama L. said that the persimmons will never fall off no matter how long you wait — you’d have to pluck them off, even if they are fifty feet tall. The tree looked like it was decorated with orange ornaments! I can’t wait for our persimmon tree to produce fruit. I wonder what it will taste like since I’ve never had a persimmon before. Mama wasn’t sure if dogs can have persimmons, although she said we can have mangoes.

Here’s a picture of Mama’s latest gardening obsession: Square Foot Gardening (“SFG”), re-invented by some guy named Mel Bartholomew. He borrowed and refined the idea from the French Intensive gardening system. It’s supposed to provide a maximum yield of healthy crop in a minimum amount of space, thereby using less water. Mama L. said that with careful planning and with the right plant combination, we could have vegetables all year long because of where we live. But anybody can do this in any region even if they don’t have a big yard! Mama took this picture in front of somebody’s house. There are all sorts of vegetables and flowers all mixed in. The whole thing sits on top of a platform, with wheels, so it’s actually portable and can be moved around. It’s about the size of a small car.

She also likes to take lots of sunset pictures.

Dear Journal,

Mama L. got locked outside the house tonight so she was a little mad at the world. We could her talking to the neighbors, but there was nothing we could do. I think she was all anxious because she was worried about us. It wasn’t until almost 7:00 when the locksmith showed up. It was already dark by then.

Mama’s been mad at the world a lot lately. First there was all that Occupy Oakland. Whatever residual sympathy she had for the movement all dissipated over the weekend, when they trashed City Hall. Mama M. said that during the time the police was there to observe all this, a bunch of really serious crimes happened elsewhere, and the police couldn’t respond. If I was a mastermind criminal, I would use this as an opportunity to knock off a bank.

And there’s the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (which the US didn’t bother to ratify). It was supposed to reduce greenhouse air emissions by 5% annually (as compared to 1990 levels), but instead it rose to an additional 49% over the past two decades. Mama L. said this is why we only have around 20,000 polar bears left. I have never met a polar bear, nor do I want to (I hear they eat dogs for fun), but it makes Mama L. sad that the humans don’t care enough about this planet to do anything worthwhile. And that makes me mad!

So instead, Mama L. cooks to take her mind off of things. She also walks us for at least forty minutes on a week night. On the weekend, we get to go for at least an hour. (Our favorite spots so far are Redwood Regional Park and Mountain View Cemetery.) She bought a brand new pot over the weekend, and she’s really excited about it. It is humongous! Mama said it’s 9.5 quarts! That’s a lot of dog food!

Speaking of dog food, several people have asked her to post a how-to. Both Little Sis and I can vouch for how delicious and nutritious homemade dog food can be. Mama L. makes a big batch over the weekend and it usually lasts us a week. I will ask Mama to write about it in an upcoming post. You’ll need to have a pressure cooker for this one.