A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Coco R.I.P.

(Above: Bobo and Coco. Photo by Annie Wong.)

Sad news for everyone who has ever loved the animals in the petting zoo at Children's Fairyland in Oakland: Coco the pony died Jan. 17 of old age. She was 38, which is way older than her normal life expectancy.
That's true of most of the animals at Fairyland: They live much longer than average because of all the tender loving care they get there.
And Coco's final months were as happy as human effort could make them. She retired last June, along with her devoted companion, Bobo the sheep. Their caregiver, Yvonne Backman, decided that Coco's arthritis would be helped if she had a new home where she could roam freely all day, which she couldn't do at Fairyland.
It was vital to place Bobo along with her because Bobo was so devoted to Coco, he'd go into a panic whenever he lost sight of her - which happened pretty often, because he's nearly blind. He'd utter pitiful little bleats of terror until somebody led him over to her.
It wasn't easy finding a home that would take them both, but Backman finally found the perfect place: Goats R Us in Orinda, which rents goats to UC Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Park District to clear brush from the hills during fire season.
Goats R Us's owner, Terri Oyarzun, bent over backward to make sure Coco and Bobo's transition to their new home would be as easy as possible.
They had the same food, same supplements, same feeding time, same wakeup time and same bedtime that they had at Fairyland. No detail was overlooked, including placing Coco's feed bucket on the same spot where it had always been.
Coco loved her new home so much, she slept every night outdoors under the stars - another thing she couldn't have done at Fairyland. As always, Bobo kept her company, even though he would rather have been indoors. (Since she died, he's slept inside his shed every night.)
"She got to be a pony again," said Oyarzun. "She didn't have any more responsibilities to the public. But she still got visits every week from Yvonne and the other folks at Fairyland, so she never felt like her old friends had forgotten her. She had the best of both worlds."
Her passing was peaceful, and the ever-faithful Bobo was with her when she died.
That was therapeutic for him because it helped him understand that she was really gone forever, not just moved to another shed or pasture.
Everyone was worried about how he'd take Coco's death, but a minor miracle has occurred: Bobo has made a new friend!
His new buddy is an eight-year old chestnut horse named Piggy B, who lives in the adjoining pen. The two of them spend hours and hours every day at the fence, communing and commiserating with each other. It's a win-win situation all around.
Kudos to Backman. Kudos to Oyarzun. Between them, they made Coco's final days happy ones. It was no less than she deserved.
If you've never been to Fairyland, you've really missed out. It's an oasis of gentleness, peacefulness and calm in the middle of Oakland, where everything is attuned to the scale and sensibilities of a little child.
And now Fairyland is making it less expensive, which is a blessing in this terrible economy. Instead of forking out $7 each time for each adult and child, you now can buy a 12-month pass for only $75 that will give you - plus up to three kids - unlimited admission.
You'll also get free guest passes, special glow-in-the-dark Fairyland Magic Keys for each child, free admission to the Jack O'Lantern Jamboree in October and Fairy Winterland in December, free cotton candy for the kids at the Johnny Appleseed Café and much, much more.
And while you're there, be sure and visit Coco and Bobo's successors, Dori the pony and Twinkle the lamb, in the petting zoo.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@california.com.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Lincoln the genius

(Above: Elmer Ellsworth)

For years, some academics have been debating about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. They argue that a country bumpkin from Stratford-on-Avon never could have penned such sophisticated works.
But I think Shakespeare wrote them himself. Genius trumps everything.
The best example is the man whose 200th birthday we're going to celebrate next Thursday, Abraham Lincoln. (Also born on that same day: Charles Darwin. It was the greatest twofer until 1965, when the Chicago Bears drafted Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the same round.)
At least Shakespeare made it through high school. But Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling. Yet he wrote the greatest speeches in American history, including his masterpiece, the Second Inaugural.
I don't mean the most famous passage - " with malice toward none, with charity for all" - as much as the hair-raising language that precedes it:
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
It took a lot of guts to tell a country that had just lost 650,000 young men that it deserved to suffer because of the sin of slavery.
But Lincoln knew personally what suffering was like. He lost Elmer Ellsworth. In 1858, at the age of 20, Ellsworth was hired as a clerk in Lincoln's law office.
In no time flat, he moved in with the family and became Lincoln’s surrogate son.
In 1860, with war on the horizon, Ellsworth quit his job and went from city to city, organizing regiments of soldiers.
The day after Ellsworth and his soldiers arrived in Washington, Lincoln invited him to lunch at the White House. Standing on the front porch, they could see a Confederate flag flying atop the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, just over the river on the Virginia side.
Indignant, Ellsworth took a squad of soldiers to tear it down. They went up to the roof, removed the rebel banner and started back down the stairs.
Suddenly, the hotel’s proprietor, James W. Jackson, stepped out of the shadows and emptied a shotgun into Ellsworth's chest, killing him instantly. Jackson, in turn, was killed by the enraged soldiers.
The whole North went into mourning. Public buildings in every city were draped in black crepe. Hymns and dirges were composed in Ellsworth’s honor.
Lincoln gave him a state funeral in the East Room, sobbing as he stood over the open coffin, tears falling from his cheeks onto the body.
For years, I tried to find out where the Marshall House used to stand. And the last time I visited Washington, I finally found it. There's a Holiday Inn on the site now, but on the wall is this plaque:
"The Marshall House stood upon this site, and within this building on the early morning of May 24, 1861, James W. Jackson was killed by federal soldiers while defending his property and personal rights, as stated in the verdict of the coroner’s jury. He was the first martyr to the cause of Southern independence. The justice of history does not permit his name to be forgotten. Erected by the sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers."
Ellsworth wasn’t even mentioned! As it turns out, he and Jackson were the same age - only 24. Ellsworth was one of the first deaths on the Northern side. Jackson was one of the first on the Southern side.
And there were 650,000 more to come.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@california.com.