Not long after the Las Vegas earthquake and shortly before the latest anti-federal land protest at Bundy Ranch, I considered biting my cat’s ear, because he has behavioral problems. He’s a kitten, but a large one who turns on me in times of hunger or loneliness or boredom, mysteriously. I’d met a rancher from Tennessee at a casino bar who said the best way to show an animal who’s boss is to bite its ear. He said he’d bitten the ears of countless cattle, horses and dogs, and it usually tamed them. I nodded and considered his expertise seriously, but could not ignore that he was missing a front tooth.
A day later, I saw a dead rat on the curb in my neighborhood. Its little corpse was in full rigor mortis, which I know because a) it was completely stiff, lying on its back, feet up and mouth gaping, and b) crime TV both soothes and educates me. Las Vegas is crawling with rats this year, and exterminators are setting poison traps all over the Valley. I shivered when I saw the toothy corpse; it looked nothing like Remy from Ratatouille. It looked more like a Hatchimal, 2016’s deeply disturbing Christmas “it” toy that for $60 was supposed to peck its way out of a plastic shell and electronically coo at its new owner, but too often was found to either a) stay in its shell no matter how much petting and sweet-talking it was offered or b) cuss. The Hatchimal alone sums up the screwed-up relationship between animals and humans, but when combined with rat-in-rigor and man-bites-dog stories, I found myself trapped in thoughts about our odd and illogical arrangements with nature.
Enter the butterflies. Apparently, the U.S. Forest Service plans to spend $1.6 million to study butterflies, including the endangered Mount Charleston Blue Butterfly. In addition to being an indicator of forest ecosystem health, these butterflies also provide pollination or, before metamorphosis, a tasty caterpillar entree for birds. Mostly, they’re pretty. And each summer, devoted biologists search for, count and study them. They found fewer than 250 last summer, which is encouragingly more than in recent years.
I was still contemplating this lovable if pricey undertaking—What’s the value of the beauty of a butterfly in motion? Can you put a price on joy given by nature?—when Mt. Charleston got a holiday snowfall. It sounded so lovely that more than 10,000 nature-seeking visitors in vehicles jammed the highway up the mountain, which only has about 3,000 parking spots, causing bumper-to-bumper exhaust and eventually prompting the shutdown of Highway 157. Cars were at a standstill, and the pics I saw reminded me of so many dead rats on a curb: Too many of one ravenous creature is pestilent, and sometimes results in poison and rigor mortis—defined as the loss of flowing energy.
The loss of this natural energy is what I fear for Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area should developers keep pushing to build a subdivision on Blue Diamond Hill. And the love of that natural energy is why I am delighted that President Obama recently protected 300,000 acres of desert landscape between Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon by creating Gold Butte National Monument, despite the protests of the Bundy Ranch anti-federalists. And it’s even why I was in awe around 3:45 a.m. on December 29, when I woke up to what I thought was someone slamming the door, shaking the house windows, only to find out later that it was a small earthquake—a 2.8—a tiny but humbling rumbling of earth that reminded me how small we are.
My cat was already awake, a good bit more attuned to the universe than I, stalking the house, keeping the rats out, watching over us with some understanding that we, too, watch over him. I will not bite his ear. And I will never buy a Hatchimal.