Pacific Flyway: Animal adventures around the planet

Road Journals Blog—I had never seen a zebra finch until I checked into a B-and-B in Point Reyes Station, an hour or so north of San Francisco, on an assignment for VIA. Near the breakfast room, the owner had a caged pair of these cute, colorful chatterboxes, whose rapid-fire song sounded to me like a playful shootout of laser weapons from a space movie.

I found every excuse to leave the bedroom and go downstairs to visit them.

Cats at the Acropolys | Craig Neff

Do you ever have animal encounters when traveling? I seem to have happy ones in every corner of the world: a stray black-and-white cat at the Acropolis, a tall-as-I-am emu in Australia, a lumbering sheepdog and a group of farm kitties in Tuscany, and, on this trip, not just the zebra finches but also a sweet pair of Italian greyhounds named Pipsqueak and Skippy at the Archives of Falconry in Boise.

Observing how other cultures (and tourists) treat dogs, cats and other domestic animals can be fascinating. The packs of street dogs I saw a decade ago in St. Petersburg, Russia, seemed oblivious to the people around them. They knew little sympathy was coming their way and were content to fend for themselves rather than begging for scraps. (They even sunned together in the park.)

In my multiple visits to China, the absence of dogs and cats—and for that matter birds and wildlife—appeared to bespeak a tradition that viewed animals as sources of food more than comfort. Contrast that with pet-crazed places like Britain and the U.S., where we obsess over getting the best food for our dogs and cats, not from them.

The writer in the Falklands, with the town greeter | Pamelia Markwood

It was in the Falkland Islands in February 2005 (while on another VIA assignment, about a cruise around Cape Horn) that I first considered the possibility that I might have a Dr. Dolittle-like gift for winning the trust and affection of animals. As I walked down the main street in Port Stanley, a town near the tip of South America that feels like a British village, a gray-and-white cat appeared. I did what I always do: crouched down, held my fist out and began talking to it in soft tones. The kitty came to me as if I were its long-lost companion. A moment later it climbed into my arms and shut its eyes.

I was full of myself after that—at least until the fall of 2008, when I was doing another story for VIA, about a New England foliage cruise. I was chatting with a woman when the topic of the Falklands came up.

"Oh, I met this great cat there!" she said. “I was on the main street and this little kitty came right up to me. It was so lovey!" Yes, it was gray and white. Yes, it was in front of the same house. Yes, in my memorable moment in Port Stanley I had apparently done nothing more than bump into the town greeter.

Craig Neff wrote the cover story for the September/October 2011 issue of VIA about the Pacific Flyway bird migration route.

This blog post was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.