Basil 2005 – 2018

It’s almost the Day of the Dead, and time to honor those who have left us this year. Here is my tribute to a family member I lost this year.

I first saw him when I was in graduate school living in a two story townhouse style apartment with my elderly tortoiseshell cat, Ginger. One night I was awoken by the sound of Ginger growling at the glass door that led out to the balcony from the bedroom on the second floor.

I got up to see what she was upset about. Out on the balcony, there was a handsome gray tabby cat with white legs and a white chest chewing on Ginger’s potted catnip. When he saw me looking at him through the door, he looked completely unconcerned and continued enjoying the catnip. Ginger didn’t even like catnip that much, but she growled at him as if to say, “The nerve of that guy! That’s MY catnip!”

Like many apartment complexes, there were several stray cats living around the place. Some of them were feral, but some of them were probably cats who previously had owners, but had been left behind either intentionally or unintentionally when the owners moved. Over the next several weeks, I started to pay attention to the gray tabby cat, and it started to seem more and more likely that he didn’t have an owner anymore, despite being friendly and already neutered. He was a bit skinny and got beat up by the local tomcats a lot. He also seemed to be outside all the time, day or night. He started coming to get catnip on my balcony regularly each night. This apartment complex was right next to a major interstate highway, and I worried that he’d get hit by a car sooner or later, like many of the stray cats did.

The day before Thanksgiving 2006 it was one of those days where it was going to be in the mid-80’s during the day, then that night we were getting a sudden cold front and it was going to freeze. When I was walking home to my apartment, the gray tabby greeted me and rubbed up on my legs. That moment I decided I shouldn’t leave him outside in the cold that night, and I picked him up and brought him inside.

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He spent the night downstairs in the living room while Ginger and I spent the night upstairs in the bedroom. Ginger wasn’t too happy about him being inside her apartment now, but she had already gotten used to him getting on our balcony each night, so at least he wasn’t a complete stranger to her.

I wasn’t sure what to call him. My balcony had several different potted herbs besides the catnip, so I started calling him Basil, since that was the one herb I had that also seemed to make a nice name. My sister came to spend Thanksgiving with me the next day, and she thought Basil was kind of a stupid name, but I told her it was just going to be temporary until I thought of something better.

Eventually I took him to a vet to get a checkup. I told them he was a stray cat I found and was thinking of keeping him. They scanned him for a microchip and he didn’t have one, so I said, “OK, I guess that means he’s mine now.” I got him vaccinated and microchipped, and the vet commented that it was hard to get the needle in because his skin was tough, which is another sign that he’s been living outside all the time for a while. They estimated his age as being about a year and a half old, so he was probably born in the spring or summer of 2005.

I’d often see him visiting other apartments and getting treats and pets from other people. That was probably how he’d been surviving. None of my neighbors said they owned him, though, and over time it became known in the apartment complex that he was my cat now. But obviously someone had owned him at some point. It remained a mystery how he came to be living out in the parking lot of the apartment complex.

He was even friendly towards dogs. I had neighbors who got a female pitbull puppy, and I’d come home to find that dog and my cat laying right next to each other on the lawn between our apartments. The dog’s owner even came to me one time and said, “I think your cat is friends with my dog,” and I told him yes, I had noticed that. He said that Basil came to visit his dog often and they’d hang out together.

Since he had been living outside for a while, he didn’t like being inside much at all. He didn’t seem to understand the concept of a litterbox at first and left some messes for me to clean up. As a compromise, I let him outside each morning before I left for class, and brought him in each evening when it got dark. Eventually he figured out my schedule, and would make himself hard to find in the evening when it was time for him to come in for the night. It felt like having a teenage son staying out late past his curfew.

Basil full of catnip

In the summer of 2008 I met the man who would eventually become my husband. Sometimes he’d help me search for Basil when he’d go missing. We spent many evenings searching the apartment complex for him shaking a bag of cat treats.  I remember one time we found him all the way at the other side of the apartment complex at the volleyball court, and he sent us on a wild chase trying to get him and make him come in.

In 2009 I graduated with my Master’s degree and moved into a rental house with my boyfriend, who already had two cats of his own, so we had to merge them together into one big cat family. He had an elderly Tonkinese cat named K.K., who used to be his store cat when he owned an antique store. He said he didn’t know what K.K. stood for because that’s just the name she came with when he adopted her. Maybe it was Kitty Kat? His other cat was Lily, a young black and white spotted cat.

The two elderly cats, Ginger and K.K., were too old for shenanigans and settled in together just fine, but the two young cats, Basil and Lily, had some serious issues getting along at first, complete with territorial peeing and occasional fights where blood was drawn. Ginger ended up passing away in 2011 at the ripe old age of 18, and eventually the remaining three cats settled their differences and figured out how to live together in harmony.

Basil and Lily

In 2012 we got married and bought a house on a large lot further out in the country, away from any busy roads. The girls remained mostly indoor cats with occasional brief excursions into the back yard, but Basil still loved being outside, climbing trees and getting on the roof, chasing little critters around, and lounging in the sun in the herb garden or on the brick BBQ pit. Whenever my husband or I did any work out in the yard, he was out there with us assisting. He remained an extremely friendly cat and loved it when I had barbecues for Midsummer and invited all my friends over. So many legs to rub on! So many people to pet him and tell him how handsome he is!

Basil Helping with Lights 001

K.K. passed away in autumn of 2012 at the age of 17 and we were down to two cats, but Basil and Lily had finally become good friends. In many ways, they had opposite personalities. Lily is afraid of most people and really only likes my husband. She kind of tolerates me, but if we have company, she always runs and hides. But she and Basil would chase each other around and play together. Each night when it was time to for Basil to come in, I shook the package of cat treats to lure him in, and then both of the cats would get treats. Eventually she learned that when it got dark, it was time for Basil to come in for treats time, so she would meow at the back door, or even come and find me and meow at me to let me know. Then I’d get the treats, open the back door and shake them, and when Basil came in, Lily would rub up against him in greeting before they’d both get their treats.

Basil in herb garden 1 (3)

Heathens say that cats belong to Freya, but I always thought Basil was more of a Loki’s cat with how much he got into trouble. He was a bit too smart and too fearless for his own good. At the apartment complex, he learned how to ring people’s doorbells to get them to give him treats. He figured out that doorknobs are how humans open doors, and would stretch himself out as tall as he could to grab the doorknob with his paws to ask to go out. I’m sure if the backdoor had a level-style doorknob instead of a round one, he would have figured out how to open it. One evening I couldn’t find him, and I finally heard his meowing coming from my neighbor’s garage, and had to awkwardly ring the doorbell and ask them to open the garage to let him out. He must have gone in there to explore earlier that day while they had it open and then got shut in.

He once got crystals in his urine that blocked his urinary tract and almost died. He had to have a catheter put in and stayed at the animal hospital for several days. Before that, he was as friendly with vets as he was with anyone else, but after that he became aggressive with them. His charts at the vet ended up with a warning on them, “Aggressive! Will bite and scratch!”

He also got into fights with other cats in the neighborhood, because of course he had to defend his territory and his family from these invaders. Many of our neighbors let their cats run loose outside most of the time, and many of them also don’t even get their cats fixed, so they get into territorial fights a lot. Sometimes he got injuries that got infected and he needed to go to the vet to drain them and get antibiotics.

He seemed to like dogs better than other cats and continued to make friends with neighbors’ dogs wherever we lived, but he was NOT happy when my sister-in-law visited with her two dogs, a blue heeler and a border collie mix. I guess he didn’t give them permission to come into his house! My sister also has cats, so her dogs are used to cats and view them as friends, but when they tried to greet Basil he stood his ground and arched his back and puffed himself up and was almost ready to strike. These dogs were several times bigger than him, and there were two of them, but I had to lock Basil in a back bedroom, for the dogs’ safety!

He was a real warrior of a cat, so maybe he was Freya’s cat too.

Basil on Shelf

Last year my husband and I started to notice that Basil was getting skinnier and Lily was getting fatter. Lily would eat all her food and then help herself to the rest of Basil’s, because Basil would only eat a few bites and then wanted to go back outside. We started trying different foods to see if he’d like other food better. We started trying to feed him in a separate room from Lily (which only freaked him out because he didn’t like being shut in a room). We took him to a vet, and they did a blood test and said his liver and kidney functions were just fine, and maybe he was just a picky eater. They asked me if he had been lethargic lately, and I told them a little, but I figured it was because he was 12 and starting to get older. The vet concluded that there was probably nothing wrong with him and sent us home.

By February his hip bones had started sticking out, so we took him to a different vet to get a second opinion. That vet ran a complete blood count on him, something the previous vet didn’t do, and found out he was severely anemic, and told us we have a very sick cat here. He also tested positive for FIV, which the vet said was very common in cats the fight with other cats. They said I would have to bring him in for twice a week injections of a drug that should stimulate his bone marrow to make more red blood cells. Since my husband and I both work during the day, I had to drop him off at the vet before work, and then pick him up after work, for something that only took a few minutes. I felt terrible leaving him at the vet so much.

Basil and Lily Feb 2018

He kept getting sicker, and by March the vet concluded that the drug was not working, and his bone marrow must have failed due to the FIV. Daniel and I did lots of research online and found out that getting a cat vaccinated for FIV can cause them to test positive for FIV. I had gotten that vaccination way back when I first took him in, because I knew his “lifestyle” put him at risk, so I got him vaccinated for pretty much every cat disease they had a vaccine for! We told the vet that, and he said there was another, much more expensive test they could do to see if he really had FIV, and also if he had something called “feline infectious anemia” that is caused by a bacterium.

We got the test, and he was negative for both of those infectious diseases, so the vet said he probably had cancer. They said to be sure they’d have to do some biopsies of his bone marrow, but at that point he was so sick and had already been at the vet so much that I didn’t feel like having the vet drill into his bones to confirm that he had a disease that wasn’t curable anyway. My mom recently had one of her cats die of cancer, and she had been on steroids for her last few months, which really helped her feel better, even though it doesn’t actually do anything to cure the disease. We asked the vet for some steroids to give Basil.

Basil wasn’t completely back to normal on the steroids, but it did seem to make him feel better. He became a little more active and ate a little more. Easter was April 1, and I had my sister-in-law, her husband, and my parents –in-law over for Easter dinner, and Basil got a lot of petting from them and seemed to have a good time.

But the steroids only worked for a couple of weeks, and then he started to go back to the way he was before even with the steroids. I started to try to mentally prepare myself for the reality that Basil wasn’t going to make it this time, but my husband had more trouble accepting that. He did a lot of research online and found out that there are other infectious diseases that can cause anemia in cats, so we got the vet to give us an antibiotic to give him along with the steroids, even though the vet said he doubted they would work because those other diseases were very rare. The steroids and antibiotic were both liquid medications we had to force-feed him with a syringe at home, and they must have tasted terrible because he’d struggle and then foam at the mouth when we gave him the medicine. We had to do that twice a day, every day.

We started keeping him shut up in a spare bedroom during the day while we were both at work and at night while we were asleep. We put food, water, a bed, and a litterbox in there all close together so he could get to them easily. He had gotten to the point where he stumbled around when he walked. I fed him meat baby food that he could lap up because he had trouble chewing hard food.

The medications didn’t seem to be working, but my husband was having a much harder time accepting that it was time to give up on Basil. I found a vet that does home euthanasia, so we set up an appointment for the afternoon of Sunday, April 15. All day Saturday and Sunday we let him lie outside in the herb garden in the sun, which was all he ever wanted to do. My husband wondered if cats understand what death is and if he knew his time was short, and so he wanted to do as much lying in the sun as possible. I guess there’s no way to know for sure.

And maybe all that sunshine did him some good, because Sunday morning he seemed to perk up a bit, and Daniel became doubtful again that we were doing the right thing. He ended up calling the home euthanasia vet and cancelling, telling the vet we were going to give him a few more days.

But by the time we came home from work Monday evening, he could hardly walk at all. I went to bed that night completely expecting to find him dead the next morning.

The next morning, April 17, he was still alive, but just barely. Daniel and I both called in sick to work. If we held baby food or cream up to his mouth, he would lick a little, but then would sort of nod off and his face would fall into the food, and then he’d jerk awake again and try licking some more. Sometimes he’d try to get up and walk and only take a few steps before lying down on the floor exhausted and breathing heavily like he had just had a hard run.

We called the vet again, and he said he could get there in about an hour. We put Basil in his bed and put him in the herb garden in one of his favorite spots. The vet had two injections to give him, one that would render him unconscious, and then a second one that would stop his heart. We petted him as he got the first injection. When he was completely unresponsive, he got the second injection, which actually made him start gasping and coughing, which bothered me a little. Then he let out one more big sigh, and death came over him.

Daniel didn’t want to bury him right away, so we put him back in his room, still in his bed. We left the door open so that Lily could go in there with him. I don’t know if she understood what was wrong with her big brother or not, but she kept vigil over him for a while. I set my Freya statue and my Odin candle in there on a table. Daniel is always reluctant to bury our cats right away, just in case they are maybe not really dead. We both know that’s an irrational thought, but I think waiting until rigor mortis sets in and they really start to look dead helps with closure. We buried Basil after work that Thursday. We put his grave under a Mountain Laurel tree just outside our ritual circle in the backyard, near where K.K. is buried under an American Beautyberry tree. The weather had started getting warmer, and the mosquitoes were starting to come out, so Daniel put out a lot of citronella candles and torches. We had Basil’s funeral by the light of those torches, listening to the sounds of night creatures like Chuck-wills-widows starting to come out. We wrapped him in the red fleece blanket from his bed, with one of his favorite toys, some catnip, and some cat treats as grave goods.

I still feel horribly cheated that he died that young. I expected him to make it until at least 17 or 18 like our other cats had. I still wonder if we would have been able to get him better medical treatment if we had gotten a proper diagnosis sooner. During his funeral Daniel apologized to Basil that he might have put him through unnecessary suffering by giving him those medications he hated so much for the last few weeks of his life. It’s just so hard to know what the right thing to do in this situation is. In some ways, the death of pets is easier because euthanasia is an option, so you don’t have to wait and wait and wait for nature to take its course, like how I had to just wait and watch my dad slowly die of dehydration in that hospice. But on the other hand, euthanasia means you have to decide yourself when your loved one is going to die, and pets can’t tell you when they want you to do it.

 

For a few weeks after Basil died, Lily continued to meow at the backdoor when it got dark to let me know it was time for Basil to come in and get his treats. She’d look confused when I didn’t open the door and just gave her some treats. She’d eat her treats, then go back to the door and start meowing some more because Basil still wasn’t in yet.

Lily started spending all day in Basil’s room, which probably still smells like him. She lies in the same spot he was laying the night before he died, before we took him outside to wait for the vet.

It took a while to get used to coming home to a quiet house, instead of coming home to Basil greeting me at the door. Lily eventually stopped meowing at the back door each evening, but she never goes outside at all anymore, so I had to get used to working in the garden with no cat.

I waffle about getting a new cat. Lily seems to get no exercise at all anymore, so maybe getting her a new friend would do her some good. For all I know she does nothing but lie in that room all day when we’re at work. But I decided I would at least wait until after the Wild Hunt has come to collect Basil’s soul and take him away.

Is there such a thing as Cat Valhalla? Can Basil feast on cream and tuna and catnip with the gods now? He did fight all the way up until the end. Even that last day, when it was clear his anemic body was struggling just to get him enough oxygen to stay alive, he was still trying to get up and walk.

I know it’s been six months, but it’s still hard to believe he’s actually gone. He was an especially good cat. I know, all my cats have been especially good cats, but he was especially good. Even though his life was shorter than I would have liked, I hope I at least managed to give him a better life than he would have had if I had not taken him in 12 years ago. He was my buddy through graduate school and getting married and buying a house and pretty much becoming an adult. George Carlin said “life is a series of dogs,” but my life has been a series of cats.

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Tilikum 1981 – 2017

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I grew up in the Dallas area, and when I was a kid, one of the main places we went for summer vacation was SeaWorld of San Antonio. We went many times, and I loved it. I was obsessed with whales and dolphins as a kid. I had posters of them on my walls. I had plush toys. When I grew up, I wanted to be a Sea World trainer so I could swim with them.

As I got older, my feelings about it started to change. I watched nature documentaries about wild orcas and started to learn more about what they’re like. I saw footage of them hunting seals by tipping icebergs the seals were on, sliding out onto the shore to grab them, and tossing them in the air before killing them. It was a lot different than the “cute and cuddly gentle giant,” image that SeaWorld was trying to portray. David Attenborough made them look more like the lions of the ocean than pandas. And then there was their intelligence, that different groups of orcas had different cultures and spoke different languages, and that they lived in close-knit, matriarchal family groups.

I took another trip to SeaWorld with my family as a teenager, and this time I saw the Shamu show for what it was, a Siegfried and Roy style circus act with orcas instead of tigers. I didn’t enjoy it, and that was the last time I went to SeaWorld.

And then in 2010 I heard about the trainer in Florida, Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by one of the orcas there. They tried to spin it as being her fault, but I always thought that was unfair. After all, she was living the life I had dreamed of as a kid. She got to swim with the orcas. I’m sure she loved them. After all, you don’t get a job like that if you don’t love animals. She wasn’t the one who had captured them from the wild. She didn’t own them. But finally one of the orcas lashed out. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill her, maybe he did, but when an animal that weighs several tons has a temper tantrum, a little tiny human doesn’t stand a chance. Circus elephants and tigers have been known to “turn on” their trainers, sometimes killing them. Circus orcas doing the same thing shouldn’t be surprising.

When Blackfish aired on CNN, I watched it with great interest. I found it very moving. I remembered how much I loved SeaWorld as a kid, and how badly I wanted to be a dolphin trainer someday, and how I had no idea how wrong it was. I had figured out it was wrong before I saw the documentary, but the documentary showed me that it was even worse than I thought. Of course, SeaWorld keeps saying that Blackfish is misleading propaganda and their whales are very happy, but they don’t have any supporting evidence refuting the specific claims in the documentary, so as a scientist that makes me very skeptical of their position.

At least they’ve promised to stop breeding orcas, even if reports of them ending their orca shows were greatly exaggerated (they merely reduced some of the more circus-like aspects of the shows). I do hope they keep their promise that they won’t breed any more of them. Maybe now that their main stud male is dead, that will make it more likely that they’ll stop.

I have mixed feelings about keeping wild animals in captivity. Captive breeding, when done responsibly, has saved some species from extinction, and I do think there is something to be said for captive animals acting as “ambassadors” for their species to inspire people to support the conservation of animals in the wild. After all, I went from being a zoo-loving kid to perusing an actual career in biology. Seeing pictures of some of these animals is just not the same as seeing them in person.

But some species do better in captivity than others, and I think there are some that just shouldn’t be kept in captivity at all. Killer whales are one of them. There’s just no way to come anywhere close to mimicking their natural environment. These are animals that roam for thousands of miles in the open ocean. On top of that, whales are one of those species of animals that are so intelligent, with such complex lives and societies, that they seem more like “non-human people” than animals. I feel the same way about elephants and (other) great apes. It just seems weird to “own” a being like that, as if it were a pet dog or cat. Captivity is the natural habitat of domesticated animals, but keeping cetaceans, elephants, and apes in captivity feels like it’s bordering on slavery.

Now, in the case of elephants and apes, they are endangered species. In the wild they are under constant threat of being killed by poachers. Maybe having some in captivity is necessary for their conservation. But in that case they should only be kept in the best conditions possible, with plenty of room to roam, plenty of activities to keep them from getting bored, and a good social group. If a facility can’t provide that, they shouldn’t have them.

I don’t see any benefit at all for keeping orcas in captivity. They’re not endangered as a species (though some populations are). Even if they were endangered, I don’t know of any captive orcas that have been bred in captivity being successfully released to the wild, so breeding them in captivity wouldn’t help with that anyway.

As for the educational aspect, SeaWorld educates people about orcas as well as Siegfried and Roy educations people about tigers, or Barnum and Bailey educates people about elephants. In other words, they don’t. If they teach people anything about these animals, it’s that it’s fun to teach them to do tricks for our entertainment. I don’t think that’s a good message to teach.

Modern humans are very cut off from the natural world, and I think one symptom of that is how we view dangerous wild animals. Like many top predators, such as wolves and bears, orcas were once seen as an evil animal. It’s where the name “killer whale” comes from. Then in the 1960’s people started capturing them live and found out they can be trained to do tricks. That changed people’s view of orcas from vicious predators to cute and cuddly and safe to pet and ride. It’s a type of black-and-white thinking. An animal has to be either good or evil. Wolves were evil, so we exterminated them, and now they’re all over t-shirts and posters and wall calendars. We exterminated grizzly bears, and then we have people like Timothy Treadwell wanting to pet them and give them cute names, until he gets eaten by one. Even though Roy of Siegfried and Roy was almost killed by one of his tigers, he still insists to this day that the tiger wasn’t really trying to hurt him. So which is it? Are these animals our friends or our enemies?

The truth is that wolves, bears, tigers, orcas, apes, and elephants are all powerful, dangerous animals. They are not pets. People shouldn’t be cuddling them and petting them and riding them and having them do tricks. But they’re also not evil demons who need to be exterminated. They should be respected for what they are and allowed to live their lives as naturally as is still possible in this human-dominated world. Sometimes I wonder if animals that are dangerous to humans have a place in this world anymore, or if they’re destined to only exist in zoos and go extinct in the wild. If (or when) that happens I think we’ll really lose something. These are animals that rival us, as top predators in the food chain, or as intelligent beings with complex societies, or both. They teach us that not all of nature can or should be controlled by humans.

Tilikum was taken away from his family as a small child and lived the rest of his life in a completely unnatural environment. Even after he murdered three humans, the humans kept using him in their shows, and used him as a stud to sire 21 children that would also be destined to live their short lives in concrete pools.  In the wild, male orcas live to be about 60 years old, but Tilikum was about 35 when he died of drug-resistant pneumonia. He would have lived such a different life had he remained in the ocean where he belonged.

Maybe there is some sort of Orca Vallhalla, and Tilikum is there now, swimming freely with his ancestors with no more concrete walls in his way. I just hope one good thing comes from his life, and that it leads to an end to orcas in captivity.

Gods and River Monsters

I like it when I see polytheism and animism sneaking into places where you don’t expect, and especially when those beliefs are treated with respect. It reminds people that Christianity or monotheism aren’t the only options out there.

And sometimes I run across an author, television personality, or other celebrity and think, “You would make a good pagan.”

Jeremy Wade, the host of River Monsters, is one of those people.

River Monsters is one of the few shows left on Animal Planet that’s actually about animals (I knew when that tagline, “Surprising Human,” came out it was a bad sign). Basically it’s about a biologist trying to catch large, dangerous freshwater fish, but it’s also a show about the people who live with these fish, and treats indigenous, animistic, and polytheistic beliefs with a lot of respect. Coming from a western society where those sorts of beliefs are usually derided as primitive and superstitious, Jeremy takes them surprisingly seriously.

When I’ve mentioned this before to people, they’ve said, “Oh, it just makes good television” to have Jeremy talking to shamans and medicine men and taking part in rituals, but even so, he could have that “Oh, these savages are so silly!” type of attitude I would expect from most westerners.

But he doesn’t, and I think that if treating indigenous people and their beliefs with respect gets him better ratings than treating them like superstitious savages, then that’s a good sign for our society.

I think it was in the first season when he tried to catch a large catfish in India that was eating partially cremated remains people would throw into the river. The fish was seen as being an agent of the gods who would carry the person’s soul to the afterlife. A guru warned Jeremy not to try to catch this fish, but he ignored the advice and tried anyway.

After trying for weeks to catch the fish, he got one of the catfish on his line, almost reeled it in, and then the line broke. It was one of the few fish he never successfully caught.

In a later episode Jeremy went to Mongolia to try to catch a giant species of trout that lives in the rivers there. It’s also taboo for the Mongolians to catch that fish. They say it belongs to the river god. Jeremy learned his lesson from what happened in India, and got a shaman to talk to the river god and ask permission to catch the fish.

That was one of my favorite episodes. In Mongolia, like in pre-Christian Scandinavia, being a shaman is a woman’s job. The shaman became possessed by the river god and talked to Jeremy directly with this deep voice, and then gave him permission to catch the fish as long as the fish is not harmed. It was amazing to watch.

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

In another episode he’s trying to catch another giant catfish in the Zambezi River, which is ruled by the god Nyaminyami. Fisherman wear amulets that look like a cross between a fish and a snake as a sign of respect to the god, though they all know it doesn’t guarantee that he won’t still pull them to their deaths one day. Jeremy got one of those amulets to wear, and once Jeremy caught the catfish, he remarks that it looks very similar to the amulet, but is Nyaminyami really just a giant catfish the silly natives have mistaken for a god? Jeremy doesn’t quite say that, like I expected him to. It’s left up to interpretation.

I think the last episode I saw was in Canada or maybe the northern United States. Jeremy was trying to catch a giant pike called a “muskie” and was having no luck. He gave an offering of tobacco to a rock that the Native Americans of the area thought was sacred, and then switched to light gear to try to catch some small fish to boost his confidence. He immediately got a muskie on the line.

Jeremy keeps saying that he’s a scientist and he has to think “rationally” about all this, but he also says that “all fishermen are superstitious”. So he’ll do the ritual, he’ll give the offerings, he’ll put on the amulets, and maybe it’s all a coincidence that he catches the fish when he does those things and doesn’t catch anything when he doesn’t, but that’s how it goes in episode after episode.

It’s a tension that I can relate to all too well. I think anybody who works out in nature has that feeling that you’re interacting with things that are beyond your control. It’s easy to start to think that something like whether or not a fish bites your hook depends on the whims of a river god.

And maybe you think that because there actually is a river god.

I just appreciate that the show leaves the possibility open. This show could have easily been about “debunking” these myths about water monsters, and showing how they’re really just giant fish the silly natives have mistaken for water monsters, but it doesn’t have that kind of tone at all. It’s about looking at how there are still wild places in the world where giant freshwater fish lurk that are capable of killing a person (and how maybe, just maybe, some of them are agents of the gods). It shows that there are still places in the world where human beings aren’t in total control.

And even if you look at this in a completely “rational” way, Jeremy still draws attention to the fact that a lot of the large fish are becoming rare and endangered and even extinct, and losing them would be a huge shame. What’s going to happen when creatures like these no longer exist?

If only more shows on Animal Planet were like this.