Monday, December 21, 2009

How a Praying Mantis Became a Chinchilla

Here's how the story goes in Big Bed Land: once upon a time there was a girl who moved to Indian Valley Idaho and woke up one morning to find that grasshoppers had devoured every leaf of every potato plant in her potato patch. Although this event in no way diminished her life-long loyalty to the Great State of ID or her growing love of the fascinating place that is Adams County Idaho, she did initiate the War on Garden Grasshoppers. First she talked to the elders of her community. Guinea hens, they told her. And keep a border of green mowed lawn around the edge of the garden. ("A moat!" cried Goat. "Excellent strategy.") Although many people in the county clamored every year for pesticides to be dropped from the sky, the elders shook their heads. "You kill 5,000 grasshoppers," they said, "and 10,000 come to the funeral." Wise words.

So came the guinea hens, little hatchlings that lived in a box in Monster J and E's bedroom. What a beautiful coop the beloved Monster J. made for the younguns! And what daring rescues he undertook when the little ones would get themselves in trouble in ways that only guinea hens could come up with... The crowning delight was to lie in the hammock and watch the adult guineas run around eating grasshoppers with lovely darting motions of their elegant necks. It was during this time that Monster E. developed an abiding affection for praying mantises, when she learned that they ate grasshoppers. She began to keep "pet" mantises on the porch. Although not confined in any way, these praying mantises would occupy the same place every year, and accept offerings of grasshoppers from the hands of Monster E. who knew how to hunt for the hoppers in their favorite haunts in the cool of the early morning when they were moving slowly. Here's a photo of one of her pets, which our dear friend Tom Trusky especially liked-- he enjoyed hearing detailed battle stories of the War on Garden Grasshoppers.

This year, when Monster E. thought that the porch mantises were gone with the frost after having left their egg cases as they always do, she walked out onto the porch one morning and there at her very feet was a praying mantis. Stunned with cold but not yet dead. What else could she do? She carried it into the house, found a jar, and saddled up the internet to find out how a person could feed and house a praying mantis through the winter.

This quest involved a 2-hour trip with Monster J. to the closest pet store that had crickets and meal worms. Crickets would be better than meal worms, but 2 hours is a long trip and Monster E. knew how to raise meal worms at home for her own supply because she had done this as a girl when she raised finches (she had pleaded for chickens but suburban customs frowned on this, spelling doom to hours of daydreaming over chicken magazines.) She explained to Monster J. how fun it was to raise meal worms, but perhaps did not notice his expression...?

Then came the transformational moment: she saw a plastic bag labeled Chinchilla Dust. Did they have chinchillas? she asked. She had never seen a chinchilla but had longed for one ever since her nephew Jeremy had described his chinchilla to her...

Yes, they had a chinchilla. An irresistably lovely chinchilla and Monster E's heart was instantly lost to this enigmatic creature. She looked at Monster J. (shall we say once again "beloved" Monster J?) who had in the past (wisely) raised objections to baby burros, pygmy goats, and indoor rabbits- though he did evince a passing weakness for a miniature horse needing a new home in the area- and he said: Yes! (Perhaps he had felt some nervousness about my sudden passion for keeping insects indoors and my occasional mention of reptiles?) "I like mammals," he commented. After researching the rather particular needs and ways of the chinchilla monster and deciding we really could keep one in our home, we made up our minds to call her Rosie.

Rosie lives in a room off Monster E's studio and a chickenwire gate can close off half the room for her and Monster J. to hang out with Rosie and learn Rosie's ways and talk peacefully together in the presence of her mysterious loveliness. When we went to pick Rosie up from the pet store, two Animal Ambassadors went with us. They had an intuition that Rosie might be something quite unique - a sort of hybrid between Animal and Monster. (Pocketnote from Bink: we are still working on this theory, and will inform you of our conclusions at a later date.)


  1. Awwww. Okay, it was a lovely story, but one thing keeps nagging at me. No, make that two things. (1)
    Do guinea hens eat praying mantises? and (2) Monster J objected to pygmy goats? I am shocked, I tell you. Welcome to Rosie, who is not a goat, which is a shame, but who is very lovely in her own right and, I'm sure, an object of fascination for the Animals in Big Bed Land.

  2. Hi Sandra:

    Monster J here--I don't object to pygmy goats per se, but I was (& am) a little leery of all the new fencing to accomodate them, not to mention building a barn for their winter shelter!

    I'll leave the praying mantis/guinea question for E!

  3. What a lovely and captivating creature Rosie is! I can see how she could have instantly charmed you and made her way into the hearts of all who dwell in and around BBL. It's good to be back for a visit here after vacation. I was delighted to find myself in the "seven(ish) things" list when I returned and ventured back online. I'm so honored to be part of this magical community!

  4. Dear Sandra,
    your question about whether guinea hens eat praying mantises shows a great understanding of the ironies and mysteries of the food chain... but it might relieve you to know that guinea hens are very attracted by motion and so really go for grasshoppers - I do know they eat ticks and pillbugs too, but praying mantises are well-camouflaged and motionless so probably have relative safety- although if a guinea hen happened to notice one, a meal would probably take place. Guinea hens will kill mice in the coop, they are fierce and fascinating creatures!

    Also I didn't mean to imply that John was against Goats (Piggles forbid!)As aging pioneers we are trying to be wise in limiting the amount of fencing and winter feeding we take on! Thanks for your comment and it sounds like you might have some goat stories to tell? We'd love to hear them!

  5. Dear Aunt Phoenix,
    we are delighted to hear that you consider yourself part of the BBL community because that's just what we'd like! We honor those Monsters who have the courage to walk into the world of Animals.

    Do you remember when Monster J. and E. were driving you back to the airport after a visit here and Monster E. said, "Maybe we'll see a baby burro," because she had never seen one and was trying to imagine some great consolation that would make your leaving less sad-- and then we did see one! How astonishing life is.

  6. We (the Hyggehus Gang) and Poetikat, just stopped in to leave our best wishes for a wonderful, Merry Christmas, but we can't just leave now!

    We are agog at the amazing Monster E and her great affinity with the natural world. Our collective jaws dropped when we read of feeding the grasshoppers to the Praying Mantises(ii)? Monster K is a little (to use the Monster J word, "leery" of those creatures with their long green, bendy legs and their tiny heads with big eyes. Monster K is not particularly comfortable with the insect world. Monster J can attest to her fear of bees, for example.)
    She does like pygmy goats, mind you - and little horses and all furry, hairy, or stuffed creatures. (Scaly ones are a bit more scary, she says.)
    We (again, collectively) have not had the supreme pleasure of a close encounter with a lovely chinchilla such as Rosie, but we have met some very interesting somewhat similar creatures called, (oops, Monster K's memory has failed her once again and she will have to summon up the Great God Google and see if she can't find out what they were. Either that, or the cog in her brain might fortuitously click into place and all will be revealed. She is at present experiencing what we have heard is known as "tip-of-the-tongue" phenomena. As we do not all have tongues of our own, it is quite foreign to us, but we trust she means that soon she will have the answer. )
    Ah ha! There were Degus!!! (See! We knew she'd get it!) They are rather like Rosie crossed with a mouse. Really sweet too. Monster K wanted to get two of them and call them Pablo and Silvia after the Realtors who sold her mom and dad's house a few years ago (they were Argentinian and very nice). Monster K-2 put the kaibosh on that idea since the 4 Monster cats could have proved tetchy at the idea (to say the least!) and Pablo and Silvia might have had a rather fearful existence as a result.

    You see...we only came to wish a Merry Christmas, but Monster K had a lot of coffee this morning and then tends to make her verbose.

    Monster-cats are advising her that it is lunchtime, so we must take our leave and say, "Adieu" until our next visit.

    MERRY CHRISTMAS from the Hyggehus!

  7. I would like to see a baby burro today. Since I'm home working and cooking all day, that seems implausible, but still...

  8. Dear Poetikat,
    how wonderful to hear from you, and never worry about verbosity where we in BBL are concerned! More is only more delightful in this case.

    I do know what you mean about squeamishness- I still sense this at times with praying mantises (when I find that one has gotten into my hair or onto my back without my knowing it after I've been working in the garden, I totally freak, and M. John Hayes has to help me.)

    And yet I am also fascinated by them. When I first started observing them, I decided I would not look anything up about them online, but would approach them as a nineteenth century naturalist would (but without capturing or killing them.) At this point I have observed almost all of their activities except I have never seen one actually deposit an egg case (if that's what it's called.) I hope to see this someday!

    This summer when I was giving the porch mantis a grasshopper, it struck me that my relationship with these creatures might bear some faint resemblances to the women of antiquity who tended sacred animals in the forecourts of temples (I was doing research on fourth century Antioch when I learned that women tended these animals right at the temple, and it fascinated me to imagine what this might have been like. An interwoven growing knowledge of the animals, the food and shelter that the land provides for them, and how they fit mystically into the cycle of life...)

    I learned recently that at a chapel of St. Agnes in Rome(the saint associated with our parish and one I feel a close connection to - the lamb is one of her symbols) there is this amazing celebration on her feast day: lambs that have been blessed in her honor are brought to the chapel, right up to altar rail, and shorn there; then the fleece (or wool?) is woven into an altar cloth for the chapel. Wow, I say to myself.

    Lovely to be in touch with you today, and I am sending Christmas greetings as well- the metaphor of birth is a constantly unfolding mystery, it seems to me!

  9. Dear Aunt Phoenix,
    how delightful to hear from you! I'm also puttering around, not cooking but cleaning though I'm hoping to cook later - maybe the sugar cookies that M. John Hayes so enjoys - he took off this morning in 6 inches of snow plus wind! I'll continue thinking of you today and pretending we are sharing the views from our windows!

    And about the baby burro: you just never know... keep looking.

  10. That Rosie is crazy cute. The first picture of her look very like the flying squirrel that turned up in my kitchen one day. I had no idea what it was, as they are far more exotic in appearance than your run-of-the mill bird feeder burgling squirrel. My mouse fairy girls are all quite taken by Rosie and have made some tentative suggestions that "wouldn't it be wonderful to have a real live chinchilla." Maybe you'd consider keeping those photos out of the public eye?

  11. Dear Margot:
    A flying squirrel in your kitchen! You are truly a person to whom amazing things happen. I've only seen flying squirrels once, on a paleo-ichthyological expedition with Keith and his father and I remember these creatures as surrounded by debates on evolutionary theory and stories of the rather frightening lengths paleo-ichthyologists will go to in order to get revenge on their colleagues who don't share their ideas about taxonomy...(I'm sure you can imagine the scene: two mad scientists and me in a little boat on Lake Huron)

    I would so much rather see one in your kitchen! If I were Chinabeary who is not shy about making demands on people,I would suggest in fact that you stop whatever you're doing right now and make a drawing of this flying squirrel in your kitchen and all that this image evokes. Perhaps even a cartoon...

  12. P.S. Here are some things that Mouse Fairies should consider about chinchillas. They need a safe room of their own to run in where they can gnaw on everything they see (no cords, no plastic, no books, no ipods, no furniture or walls you care about having lots of teeth marks in) and it's really quite cruel if you can't spend two hours every day sitting in this room while they run around and OCCASIONALLY let you pet them or hold them. They have very particular needs, like grass hay and volcanic dust and temperatures between 50 and 75 degrees, no drafts, and more!

    I adore Rosie but she would not have been a good pet for me at any stage of my life until lately when I started being indoors a lot more and working at home. Of course Mouse Fairies may be different!

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