Episode 46: The Hitchhiker's Guide to WWOOFing

Looking for a relatively cheap way to spend a few weeks abroad? You might want to consider World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF. Have an aversion to mud, farm animals, and learning on the job? Maybe reconsider that first suggestion. But for those of you who are looking for an adventure, on a budget, Sam and Molly have composed a “guide” for would-be WWOOFers to think about before taking off–from how to make sure your visa is in order, to embracing the awkwardness of close quarters with strangers, while still maintaining your dignity. 

VISAS ARE COMPLICATED

Sam and Aubrey in a place where they WWOOFed without a visa, because they are a couple of rule breakers.

Sam and Aubrey in a place where they WWOOFed without a visa, because they are a couple of rule breakers.

When you WWOOF, you don't get "paid" in the traditional sense, but what you are doing is working in exchange for room and board. And in some countries, you're not allowed to WWOOF unless you get a visa issued by that country. That needs to be done in advance. You can't just fly to the country where you plan to WWOOF and say, "I'd like a visa, please!"

Claire WWOOFed in Sweden and Spain for two months with no problems, but when she went to Ireland, she and her girlfriend were stopped in customs. Ireland, as it turns out, is one of a handful of countries that require a special visa just for WWOOFers and other work exchange programs, called a working holiday visa. Claire and her girlfriend were detained, their mugshots were taken, and they were kicked out of the country. Not ideal.

Other countries consider WWOOFers to be just like any other tourist, like in Europe where you can stay for just three months. Sam and Aubrey tested the limits of that rule when they WWOOFed. They stayed in Europe for ten months, moving from farm to farm. When they were heading back to the US, a customs official in Iceland called them out on it. After a tense moment, they were eventually allowed to return to the US but were told they wouldn't be allowed back to Europe for three months. Crisis averted, but the lesson here is one all travelers should heed: make sure your papers are in order before you leave the country.


YOU'VE GOT TO BE GAME

Ian West holding one of the turkeys.

Ian West holding one of the turkeys.

Killing and cleaning chickens, hard physical labor, chickpeas upon chickpeas, fertilizing with your host's stored urine, all of these scenarios and so many more can be part of the WWOOFing experience. You need to be ready to roll with the punches, which could mean slaughtering poultry or adapting to a new diet. 

When Ian arrived on a farm in Oregon, within minutes he was helping kill and prep chickens for eating. What started out as a way to fill a few weeks in between finishing up a backpacking trip and starting a trip with a National Outdoor Leadership School wound up being a crash course in learning where your food comes from.

For Andy, who WWOOFed in New Zealand, most days were filled with hard physical labor, building a long fence, digging post holes for hours in the hot sun. After a full day he was famished, only to find that his meal would be chickpea burgers with hummus on top. Chickpeas on top of chickpeas is not the most satisfying meal. Another woman Sam spoke to worked on a farm where her meals were toast. Three times a day. Just slices of toast.

WWOOFing can be challenging and it's important to try new things you might not have otherwise tried, but it's equally important to know your own limits.


WWOOFING IS HARDER AS A WOMAN

Shea and her friend at one of their WWOOF homes.

Shea and her friend at one of their WWOOF homes.

To be fair, a whole lot of things are harder as a woman, and WWOOFing is no different. Shea had a couple of really uncomfortable moments WWOOFing. One of her hosts, a single male, would have her and her friend fertilize the crops using a mixture of water and urine that he had stockpiled. To be clear, it was his urine. On another occasion, a male host at one of the farms would take all of his baths in the stream, and then walk the property naked, with no warning. 

Aubrey struggled at one WWOOF location when one of her hosts would ask Sam to go prune trees and chop wood and then ask Aubrey to clean the kitchen. At first, she felt like it was a chore like the others, but after a while it became clear to her that her host thought she was useless.  

When you are choosing a WWOOFing opportunity, do your research before you choose a farm to work on, but also, don't be afraid to speak up or leave if you feel you're being treated unfairly. Man or woman, if you're in a situation where you, or someone you're with is not being treated with respect, stick up for yourself and for others!


YOU ARE ALL UP IN PEOPLE'S BUSINESS

Jacob heading to the fields with his WWOOF host's child in tow.

Jacob heading to the fields with his WWOOF host's child in tow.

Molly was fortunate to have a WWOOFing experience that included a big, beautiful farm house, with a private bath. Sam had a variety of experiences, good and bad, large and small. But quarters, in general, can be tight. It can start to feel claustrophobic when you're sharing space with relative strangers. 

For Jacob, the experience was particularly intimate and uncomfortable. The family at one of the farms where he worked was having marital problems. Serious marital problems. In the mornings he would hear the couple shouting at each other, and he was left tending to two toddlers who were clearly upset that their parents were fighting. On top of that, the patriarch of the family began asking Jacob for advice. Jacob was 24 years old, so imagine his confusion  when a forty-year-old father of two was asking him for parenting and marital advice. 

Your experience will definitely vary, but living in close quarters can be tricky and you may find that you are privy to very personal and, ahem, challenging conversations and situations.


BE OUR (GOOD) GUEST

A breakfast Molly ate while WWOOFing in Ireland. 

A breakfast Molly ate while WWOOFing in Ireland. 

WWOOFing is a two-way street. You're counting on the host to be gracious and fun, but they're counting on YOU to be a good guest. Sam's favorite WWOOF host was Maria Jesus who ran a cheese farm in Spain. Her experiences with WWOOFers run the gamut of great to just plain bad. One guest showed up, ate dinner, did laundry, showered, and the sneaked off in the morning without doing a speck of work.

At Maria Jesus' farm WWOOFers were given a place to cook for themselves and then she would go grocery shopping to stock the kitchen. On one occasion she had a pair of WWOOFers who didn't know the first thing about cooking and she had to teach them the basics, like how to cut a tomato. 

Molly's host in Ireland, Anne, was an amazing cook and incredibly accommodating. But just like WWOOFers, hosts have their limits. An Italian couple came to work on the farm and she found them delightful, but on the evening of their arrival the woman announced that she was vegetarian. Anne explained that ham was on the menu for dinner and the woman replied with: "Oh that's alright, I eat ham." This seemed odd to Anne, but her guest did in fact eat the ham and then ate the other meatless options. Eventually, the woman discovered that the ham had come from the pigs on Anne's farm, and became terribly upset and refused to eat any more ham. Farm to table was a little too close for her comfort, apparently.

Anne also has a few repeat WWOOFers that come to help out on the farm including Bob who despite having no background in farming, became a vital helper on the farm. The first time he arrived he stayed with Anne for 3 months and did everything that needed to be done. Bob puts his head down and works hard, something any WWOOF host can appreciate. So remember, you want to have a good experience, and your host has probably invited you into their home hoping to provide a good experience, but sometimes you have to meet in the middle. When in doubt, do your best, and treat people how you'd like to be treated!


YOU'LL PROBABLY LOVE IT...AT LEAST THESE PEOPLE DID

Jeremy enjoying some of the fruits of his labor.

Jeremy enjoying some of the fruits of his labor.

Everyone we spoke to about their experience loved it, would do it again, and recommended it to others. Even Shea who dealt with a naked host AND a host who stored his own urine to use for fertilizer. Even Jacob who became a defacto au pair and a reluctant marriage counselor. 

One more person who had perhaps the most unbelievable WWOOFing stories is Jeremy. He went to Spain, Italy, Israel, and Wales during a gap year between high school and college. In Italy he stayed in a castle on the outskirts of a little village with what sounds like the descendant of the feudal lord who used to rule the village. He ate wild boar, drank home-made wine, did shots of whiskey in the morning; he provided a slew of coming of age stories set in an idyllic Italian location. 

Soon after his Italian adventures, he traveled to Israel and worked on an herb farm next to the border with the Gaza strip. This was in 2009 when a new round of hostilities had kicked off and he said he could see rockets flying overhead from Gaza at night. An experience he will not soon forget.

These are likely not the experiences that a tourist gets while riding a bus though the historic district of old European cities. WWOOFing is a strange, difficult, and often times wonderful way to explore other countries, meet new people, and build up a stockpile of amazing stories to share with family and friends. 

Correction: Jeremy misspoke, he was in Israel in 2009, not 2007. This post has been changed to reflect that correction.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Molly Donahue and Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Hannah McCarthy, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon

Special thanks to everyone who responded and shared their sometimes shocking, always entertaining WWOOFing stories.

Music from this week’s episode came from Gillicuddy.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 27: Millionaires' Hunt Club

A quick note: this episode previously appeared in our podcast feed back in the spring of 2016, as an individual segment in one of our hour-long episodes we produced to air on New Hampshire Public Radio. So you might have already heard it, but…you might not have!

Sam is going to take us all hunting this week. Not hunting for animals, but instead, hunting for the secret of what’s behind that 26-mile fence cutting through the woods of New Hampshire, and why some people want it to stay a secret.

From my very first days as a reporter in New Hampshire, I started to hear about a place hidden up in the woods of New Hampshire. A place full of unfamiliar animals from other places, but fenced off from the rest of the state, and kept quiet. I never heard about it directly it was always through a guy who knew a guy, who had been inside but the more I heard about the place, the more unbelievable it seemed.

This massive, private park was called a “millionaires hunt club” and “the most exclusive game preserve in the United States” and yet there were many people I know who had lived their entire lives in this state, but had never heard of it. So what is the secret of what’s behind that 26-mile fence cutting through the woods of New Hampshire, and why do some people work so hard to keep it a mystery?

Helen M. Derry at corbin park central station, courtesy brian meyette. 

Officially it’s called the Blue Mountain Forest Association, but everybody who knows about it calls it Corbin Park. (Seemingly shortened from Corbin’s Park… we’ll get to the origin of the name.) It’s near the border with Vermont and it’s huge, though its exact size seems to be something of a mystery. Regardless, at somewhere between 24,000 and 26,000 acres this park is actually bigger than something like 60 percent of New Hampshire towns.

You can find the chain-link fence that encircles the entirety of the park at the end of any number of long rough dirt roads that lead to locked gates. It feels almost like like stumbling across a military base full of UFOs or some similar secret. The fence itself looks sturdy, if slightly weather-worn, and at regular intervals features small signs reprinted hundreds of times, “the enclosed park fence and signs are protected by a special law of this state and any person trespassing herein or in any way violating that law will be prosecuted.”

I got my introduction to the park from a man named Brian Meyette, a retired database administrator, who lives in an off-the-grid home, right next to the fence. “In the fall it’s cool, because you get elk bugling in here,” he said as we walked down his icy driveway,  “I actually even came down here once because I could hear one and it sounded like he was bugling just inside the fence.”

Elk, in case you didn’t know, are a Western thing. We don’t have them in New Hampshire. Except on the other side of this fence. And that’s not the only thing that’s over there.

“Any time people come up here to work or anything, they always say, ‘oh did you see the pigs?’ said Brian, laughing. When he says pigs, he’s referring to Eurasian wild boar, imported from Germany into New Hampshire.  “And no,” Brian continued, “normally you come down here and it’s just you see a bunch of trees, that’s all you ever see.”

But while you might not see them, there are elk bugling and Eurasian wild boars hustling around behind those fences.

But why?

The trouble with finding the answer to that question is that no one inside of Corbin's Park wants to talk about it. Corbin’s Park is a member’s only club. If you are a reporter, and identify yourself as such, not only do the employees of the park not want to talk to you, but the members don't want to talk to you, the people they have invited as guests don't want to talk to you, even some regular folks in town don't want to talk to you.

Meet Austin Corbin

Basically the only way to talk about Corbin's park today is to start by talking about Corbin's park 100 years ago. The farther back in time I went, the easier it was for me to find people who wanted to talk about this place, which is what brought me to Larry Cote. Cote is a retiree, and chair of the Newport Historical Society, which is where all the historical documents about Corbin’s Park have come to be kept.

“This is our 4th year and you’re the first person who’s asked about it, so I’d say it’s pretty rare that somebody’s got a lot of inquisitive-ism,” Cote told me as we dug through binders full of photos and letters.

Here are the outlines of the history of the park. It starts with a guy named Austin Corbin born in 1827, grandson of the town doctor in Newport, New Hampshire, who left home to go to Harvard as a young man. He then he went to Davenport, Iowa where he fell into real-estate and banking, and became one of the founders of the American banking industry alongside giants like J.P. Morgan.

After making a lot of money in the midwest, he then headed out to New York, where he invested in some swampy property out in an underdeveloped borough: Brooklyn. “He drained the swamp, he tore down the shacks, he built two hotels  the Oriental and the Manhattan  and that’s how Coney Island got started,” said Cote.

But as he was amassing his fortune, part of him just wanted to go back to New Hampshire. So he hired an agent to start buying up farms in the towns around his childhood home. In so doing, he didn’t exactly endear himself to the locals. “There’s people that say he was a robber and all that stuff,” said Cote, who was quick to defend Corbin, saying the farmers got fair prices for their land. Even so, there was even a rhyme that people in Croydon  one of the towns bordering the park started saying about this time:

Austin Corbin, grasping soul,

Wants this land from pole to pole.

Croydon people bless your stars,

You’ll find plenty of land on MARS.

Corbin bought sixty some-odd farms, (again, in New Hampshire, this is the size of an entire town) and he set about building his very own dream game reserve.

“The elk cost him $5,000 dollars. The Moose $1,500, the buffalo $6,000, deer and antelope $1,000, wild boar pigs $1,000 dollars, and then additional other animals were another $5,500,” said Cote as he read from a ledger from the park’s archives. Caribou, reindeer, big-horned sheep, pheasants, Himalayan Mountain goats. The park contained animals from all over the world, like an exotic, cold-weather safari.

But just when the park was really starting to shape up, Austin Corbin and his son decided to take some new horses for a day of fishing and picnics by a nearby lake. His driver hitched some new horses to the buggy, but didn’t give them blinders and when Corbin opened a parasol the horses spooked. The carriage was overturned, and both Corbin and his coachman were killed.

For a few decades, the park was operated by Austin Corbin’s son (charmingly but confusingly also named Austin Corbin) and these are what you might call the ‘Golden Years’ of the park. Famous people like Teddy Roosevelt came to hunt, and a world renowned naturalist takes up residence in the park to make observations and take notes. The park’s buffalo were at least according to some instrumental in restoring Bison to the American West.

In the early days, the park was open to the public. Every Wednesday, they were invited in to explore and there was even a winter carnival held there when the townsfolk came in for a deer hunt, ski jumping, a ball, and a banquet.

But after Austin Corbin the senior died, his fortune slowly began to ebb away. Austin Corbin the son can’t quite replicate whatever business magic his dad had, and Cote said that the when Corbin the son died in 1938, he was more or less penniless. That same year, a massive hurricane blew down huge amounts of the fence that kept the park enclosed, and boar and elk escaped in large numbers. The park fell into disrepair, until eventually in 1944 his family gave it up and a group of wealthy hunters took it over.

As time went by, the park dropped further and further from the public eye. Today, most people I talk to who are from New Hampshire have never heard of the place.

These days, whatever’s going on in Corbin’s park, stays in Corbin’s park.

Except for when not everything stays inside.

Hunting around the edges

“Back in 1987 we believe,” Sonny Martin began explaining to me over the phone, before his wife shouted from the background (“Eighty-six!”), “Oh now, my wife corrected me, ‘86.” Martin is the now retired former owner of a hardware store in Lancaster, New Hampshire some 70 miles north of Corbin’s Park.

“So, somewhere, 1st of November, I was sitting in my tree-stand. It was getting dusky, I always call it next to dark,” said Sonny, falling into the rythms of a story he’s obviously told more than a few times, “Well, the next thing I knew, out comes this wild boar, and he just moves out into the middle of the clearing. He reminded me like a train, the way his legs moving, you know, I’ve always said that. And he just stood there, and does this ‘take your best shot.’”

Martin did take his best shot, and he mounted the head of the boar that he killed that day and for years it hung on the wall behind the register at his hardware store.

gate around corbin park, photo by sam evans-brown

Wild boar can weigh more than 200 pounds, and need to eat more than 4,000 calories a day. They’re aggressive, a nuisance to farmers, and they reproduce like crazy. It’s not unusual for one sow to have six piglets per litter, and sometimes they have two litters per year. To top it all off, they’re smart and wiley. One federal wildlife control official I interviewed said once they design a fence that can hold water, it will be strong enough to hold a pig.

“I mean it was kind of… it was a little bit unbelievable to see something laying there,” Martin said of the animal.

Martin is not the only one to have killed one of the escaped pigs of Corbin park. Technically, the wild boar that escape Corbin’s Park are property of Corbin’s Park, and hunters outside the fence aren’t allowed to shoot them without permission. But the park is liable for any damage to crops or lawns that an escaped boar might cause, so from what I’ve gathered from talking to locals and neighbors, they’re fine with letting local hunters clean up the problem for them. State Fish and Game doesn’t want to issue permits to hunt the pigs because they don’t want to create a demand among hunters for a species that in other parts of the country has become an invasive pest. (Now that you know to look for it, you’ll start to regularly see headlines about men arrested for transporting and releasing wild boar to new places to get new populations going.)

So, with this unregulated hunt, there’s something of a symbiotic relationship going on: local hunters experience the thrill of hunting exotic game without being a part of Corbin’s exclusive club, and they take care of one of the park’s more troublesome issues. I’ve spoken with several people who say they’ve hunted pigs outside the fence, including one who said he shoots multiple ones every year, but none of them agreed to be interviewed in front of a microphone.

It’s another layer of secrets. Not only is what happening inside the fence shrouded in mystery, but some of the activities outside the fence are happening under the radar too. Secrets within secrets: a Russian matryoshka doll of secrets.

But what’s happening today, on the inside?

I tried for a very long-time to talk to someone who is a member of Corbin Park. I called the president of the park. I called the superintendent a bunch of times. I called two other members whose names I managed to find. I even eventually wrote a letter to the park’s general address.

image courtesy brian meyette

No response.

I did succeed in talking to a number of people who have been guests and hunted inside the park and even managed to talk to a current member, but none of these folks wanted to be interviewed in front of a microphone. I was also able to pull the park’s tax returns, because it’s a non-profit, and they file numbers of how many animals are shot each year with Fish and Game.

So here’s what I learned.

There are 30 members. We know who some of these folks are, because their names show up as directors of the park on the tax-forms: one is the CEO of a plastics company that makes things like spout on a can of whipped cream; there’s a self-made millionaire whose company built a stealth boat they’re trying to sell to the US military; there’s the owner of a major gun manufacturing company, who also happens to own Austin Corbin’s old mansion; and there’s even one of the descendents of the Von Trapp Family Singers, from the Sound of Music.

central station, corbin park. image via google maps. 

These 30 members and their guests shoot somewhere between 200 and 600 wild boar every year, and between 40 and 120 deer and elk.

From the tax forms you can see that the park makes money off of meat-cutting (members can pay to have their meat butchered for them) but most of their income comes from membership dues, which cost something in the neighborhood of $25,000 dollars a year.

To become a member, you also have to buy the shares of a former member. No one told me how much it cost them to buy into the club initially, but I was told that calling it a millionaire’s hunt club is not an exaggeration.

So why all the secrecy? These are wealthy people who don’t want to attract the attention and perhaps the resentment of those who don’t approve of their habits. And believe me, there’s plenty of resentment.

“You can’t get into it. It’s the biggest secret. It’s the millionaires hunt club. The most exclusive game preserve in the United States,” said Rene Cushing in an interview, a New Hampshire state legislator who says that on the political spectrum he leans toward the socialism, “Millionaires only, and New Hampshire peasants need not apply.”

Cushing tried to get a bill passed to require the people who hunt boar inside Corbin Park to buy a New Hampshire hunting license, which is not currently required. I asked him why he felt their exclusivity was a reason to go after the club members.

“I don’t think it’s fair that the people who go surf-casting, pay their $8, pay the Fish and Game Department, should end up subsidizing the Fish and Game Department when they have to go to Corbin Park to respond to a hunter being shot, or when they have to go up to 89 and pick up a wild boar that’s escaped from this fenced in property, and the rest of us are picking up the tab,” said Cushing, “It’s just about fairness.”

I think this is why it’s so hard to talk to members of Corbin Park.  The probably feel like just laying out the facts of this place the cost, the invasive species escaping into the state, the overwhelmingly male membership and guests will prompt a negative reaction from the Rene Cushing’s of the world.

Reporters sniffing around the fences of the park inevitably puts them into a bind, though. If they talk to reporters, it could encourage more reporters to do more stories, which means more people talking (some negatively) about this gigantic exclusive park. If they don’t talk, then the eventual stories that do come out sound like this one, where the members seem somehow shady, for exercising their right to not comment.

The members probably feel like outside the fence, they can’t win.

So what is Corbin Park?

corbin park central station, photo by sam evans-brown

It’s 26,000 acres of rocky New Hampshire land, fenced off, stocked with elk, eurasian wild boar and white-tailed deer. It’s private, but you can get in if invited by a member, or if you ask on the right day. It was built over 100 years ago, by a super-wealthy banker. Every year, hunters inside shoot somewhere between 200 and 600 wild boar, and between 40 and 120 elk and deer. The animals are fed through the winter to help keep the populations up, but you’re not allowed to hunt around the feeding sites.

Members can get the meat butchered and smoked on site. They can stay in cabins and old farmhouses - the ones that are still standing - that are sprinkled throughout the park. They can hike up Croydon and Grantham peaks, the two tallest mountains in Sullivan County, which are inside the fence.

It’s expensive to be a member, and only 30 people are allowed to be members. When someone wants to sell their shares, you’ve got to know a guy who knows a guy if you want to buy them; there’s no announcement in the papers.

And we also know that most of the people who live near this park, folks like Brian Meyette, have no problem with the place and tend to say it’s a good neighbor. The park is quiet, pays its taxes.

However you feel about all that… it’s up to you.

In the end, I don’t think Corbin Park is actually a mystery. At one point, I spoke to Heidi Murphy a lieutenant with Fish and Game, who has been inside to help the park staff with occasional issues with bears.

“It’s just you know a big huge patch of woods with some hunters that are camping out in some cabin,” she said, laughing at my insistence that it must be more interesting than that.

“It’s, you know, it’s New Hampshire woods,” she shrugged.


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks to David Allaben and Tony Musante from the USDA. By the way, if you see an escaped boar in New Hampshire, you should report it to those guys. 


Thanks also to Ken Hoff, who volunteered his time and his skills to give us an airplane ride over Corbin’s Park

This week’s episode featured tracks from [tk tk tk]. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks.

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder

S02|E05: Ties That Bind

For alpinist Ben Clark, scaling the world’s toughest mountains is a source of pride and peace; for his mom and dad it is a source of constant worry. What's a parent to do if their son’s lifelong ambition puts him in harm’s way? Plus, The “Save the Whales” movement of the 1970’s was instrumental in putting a stop to commercial whaling. But even as humpbacks and other whale populations have bounced back, one species is still up against the ropes. Literally. Later in the show, Sam tackles the problem of whale entanglement and discovers that proposed solutions include crossbows, Australian lobsters, and Chinese finger traps.

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! We're currently offering up our seasons for FREE! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1

Parenting at 24,000 Feet

For alpinist Ben Clark, scaling the world’s toughest mountains was a source of pride and peace; for his parents it was a source of constant worry. After they learned to live with their son’s adventurous streak, Ben decided to quit the mountaineer life altogether. Why? The answer may surprise you.


Part 2

Up Against the Ropes

The “Save the Whales” movement of the 1970’s was instrumental in putting a stop to commercial whaling. But even as humpbacks and other whale populations have bounced back, one species is still up against the ropes. Literally. In this story, Sam tackles the problem of whale entanglement - and discovers that proposed solutions include crossbows, Australian lobsters, and Chinese finger traps.


Part 3

ask-sam_wArrow.gif

Ask Sam - A Question About Canine Bathroom Rituals

Rebecca Lavoie asks: “Why does it take my dog so long to figure out exactly where it is that he wants to go to the bathroom? Number one, number two...it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of pickiness going on. On-leash, off-leash, on walks on the road, running free…it doesn’t matter. Location seems to be incredibly important and I want to know why?”

Well Rebecca, (who is, full-disclosure, our digital director here at NHPR, and only called the Ask Sam line when we told her if she just keeps asking questions in the break room we’re not going to be able to create any content for the website) it’s because your adorable wheaten terrier is in fact descended from a timber wolf*.

For wolves and wild dogs, whose noses are simply astonishing, taking a poop is similar to leaving a trail of information behind:

 

“Who’s been there, when they’ve been there, what’s their reproductive status, what they’ve been eating, etc,” explains Dr. Brian Hare, who heads Duke’s Canine Cognition Center, and is the founder of Dognition.

“As people say often, it’s like a dog’s reading the newspaper to smell what others have left. They are creating content, and so just like you as a media person, you want to put your product your content in a place where people will see it. The reason that dogs for instance want to defecate or urinate on things that are high is because that’s going to be easier for someone else’s sniffer to run into.” 

Dogs, with their leavings, are attempting to create an “olfactory bowl” (a fancy science-y term for their territory), and it would totally defeat the purpose of all that effort if they pooped somewhere hidden and a dog passing into their territory just walked right by.

Other insights?

  • Dogs that learn on a single type of surface are weirded out about using something that they are not used to. These preferences tend to be set by about four-and-a-half-months-old.

  • Sometimes pooping is simply not your dog’s priority, and distractions -- especially the presence of other dogs -- can be an issue.

  • Dogs are sensitive to magnetism, and when the magnetosphere is calm (about 20% of the time) they like to orient themselves North/South. “Why they would do that?” Brian Hare says, “Nobody knows.”

So you can take the dog out of the taiga, but you can’t take the taiga out of the dog. Just a little something to appreciate every time [insert your pup's name here] refuses to just let you go back inside.

 

* this statement may not be 100% science.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, Logan Shannon, and Megan Tan.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Uncanny Valleys. 

Episode 21: Nature is a Haunted House

Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Friday the Thirteenth, Blair Witch. It seems the woods make a great backdrop for scary stories, but why? Are we hardwired to fear the forest? Or, let’s throw it out there, do ghosts just like hanging out in the thickets? Sam goes on the trail with paranormal experts and talks with Lore’s Aaron Mahnke to find out what makes the woods so terrifying, and tests his own beliefs along the way.

Meet our paranormal experts

Rich Damboise is a nature photographer, screen printer, and ex-moto cross racer. He traded in his bike for an EMF reader and now speeds around New England investigating the paranormal.

Jerry “The Candyman” Seavey is a former pro-wrestler who hopped in the ring alongside Randy Savage, The Undertaker, and Shawn Michaels. He now gets his adrenaline rush chasing ghosts.

Rich and Candyman, along with a few other friends, run Adventure Cam-Paranormal, a YouTube series which investigates New England’s most haunted locations.

The Location

Rich and Candyman met the Outside/In crew at Vale End Cemetery in Wilton, New Hampshire which, according to the internet, is wicked haunted.

The Equipment

No ghost hunting expedition would be complete without the following tools.

EMF meter

...or electromagnetic field meter. This handy little tool can be easily purchased on-line and detects fluctuations in electromagnetic fields. If there are sudden bumps in activity, watch out! There could be a ghost, or power lines, near by.

Voice recorder

It’s always good for a paranormal investigator to have a voice recorder on hand because some ghosts want to be heard rather than seen. These ghostly recordings are known as EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon. A shotgun mic is a sure bet, but there are many recorders out there to suit any budget.

Camera

Photography is a must when capturing spirits who prefer to be seen and not heard. Things to look out for: orbs,  aura, mist, spirits. Rich is a seasoned photographer with a professional camera, but budget models will work in a pinch.

Of course there are many other tools that Rich and Candyman use including camcorders, infra-red thermometers, flashlights, motion detectors, and a teddy bear called BooBuddy.

The results

Our paranormal investigation didn’t turn up any spirits, but it did bring us to a beautiful New England cemetery rich in history. Plus, Rich and Candyman have promised to take Sam to a haunted house and they assure us things WILL go bump in the night.


The Shadowy Side of the Outdoors

Former extreme athletes Rich and Candyman say that the adrenaline of paranormal investigations is a good substitute for the heart-pounding moto-cross races and wrestling matches. There is a logical connection between fear and adrenaline, but what’s causing the fear? Why are we scared of the dark? Why are so many spooky stories set in the woods? To get those answers, Sam spoke with a man steeped in the stuff. Aaron Mahnke, host of the podcast Lore.

Why can the woods be so frightening?

I think for a very long time the wilderness represented the unknown to us. I know we like to feel like we have a full understanding of what’s out there, we’re modern humans after all, but I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we said there was nothing left to learn or explore. Sometimes I tell people, go find a photo of the New Jersey pine barrens or forests of the northwest. There are places in this world that are so huge that we can’t say with confidence that we’ve mastered them completely. I think that’s where the fear comes from. We fear the things that we can’t control. The great outdoors are a beautiful place, but they also hide a lot from us.

"I think for a very long time, the wilderness represented the unknown to us...I think that’s where the fear comes from, right? Because, we fear the things that we can’t control. The great outdoors are a beautiful place, but they also hide a lot from us. And I think that’s how the wilderness casts that spell of fear over us." - Aaron Mahnke

Why are people drawn to spooky stories?

I think we really want to believe that we’re not alone. Yeah, there are 6.5 billion of us on the planet, which shouldn’t make us feel alone , but we do live pretty solitary lives. We got through things in our lives, like loss and separation, I think, to some degree, people believe in stories of ghosts because it gives them hope that there might be something more, that there might be a way to stay connected to the people to the people that they’ve lost. But I also think there’s an entertainment value to it. The things that ghosts might do, the noises they might make in the house, it makes a good story.

Do you believe in ghosts?

So what I tell people, even the preface makes me sound like I’m dodging the question, but I tell people that I believe the stories. I believe that people really believe that these things happened. I believe them and there’s value in listening and sometimes there’s value in repeating those stories. I try to ride the fence. It makes for a better storyteller when you don’t fully believe in one side or the other.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Music for this episode is from Uncanny Valleys.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 9: Parenting at 24,000 Feet

For alpinist Ben Clark, scaling the world’s toughest mountains was a source of pride and peace; for his parents it was a source of constant worry. After they learned to live with their son’s adventurous streak, Ben decided to quit the mountaineer life altogether. Why? The answer may surprise you. 

Listen to Episode 9


Ben Clark directed the documentary, The Alaskan Way.

Follow Ben Clark on Instagram @bclarkmtn

You can also find out more about his film projects at his website: bclarkmtn.com