METRO photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

The holiday season is a time of gathering and thanks but, during these stressful and uncertain times, it can be difficult to find anything to be thankful for. The exception is pet ownership. One thing I hear over and over is, “I am thankful for my pets.” Now, more than ever, pets provide stress reduction and help to fend off loneliness. They are good for mind and body.

How do we know that interacting with a pet reduces stress? I read about a study where individuals were induced into a stressful state and then offered a rabbit, a turtle, a toy rabbit, or a toy turtle. Those individuals that pet a real rabbit or turtle showed a significant reduction in stress compared to those that pet a toy rabbit or turtle.

More recently, a study comparing pet owners (dogs and cats) to non-pet owners during COVID found that owning a pet reduced the feelings of isolation by having an individual (even if not human) to talk to throughout the day. Some of the participants even relished the fact that they were able to spend more time with their pets during lockdown than before. This is so important in the new era of online meetings, classes, etc.

Pet ownership also benefits physical health. Previous studies both in the United States and abroad have concluded that just owning a pet significantly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as a heart attack or stroke, reduces the risk of type II diabetes, and lowers cholesterol.

Even before COVID it was known that owning a pet motivates us to exercise more. The national physical activity guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week but a CDC analysis states only about 50% of Americans get that total. In contrast to this data, research shows that dog owners walk an average of 22 minutes more per day. Not only do dog owners exercise more, but also the type of exercise is healthier. The type of exercise is described as at a moderate pace which refers to getting the heart rate up.

A more recent study found that dog owners were more likely to take their dogs for walks during COVID and, as a result, lost more weight than non-dog owners. So let us give thanks to the furry, four-legged members of our family who enrich our lives every day.

I give thanks to all the readers who enjoy this column. I would like to also thank Heidi Sutton, editor of the Arts and Lifestyle section, as well as all the staff at Times Beacon Record News Media for another great year!

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

Arkarup Banerjee. Photo from CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Arkarup Banerjee is coming back home to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This time, instead of working on the olfactory system, the way he did in Associate Professor Dinu Florin Albeanu’s lab from 2010 to 2016, he is studying vocalizations in the Alston’s singing mouse, a Central American rodent.

Banerjee rejoined Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in November after almost four years of post-doctoral work at NYU Langone Medical Center. He hopes to use the study of the way these mice react to songs and the way they formulate them to understand how signals from the brain lead to vocalizations.

Singing Mouse

“The reason I decided to come back to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is not just because I did my PhD here,” said Banerjee, who is an assistant professor. “Neuroscience [at the lab] is amazing. I have fantastic colleagues. I expect to have lots of collaborations.” CSHL is one of his “top choices” in part because of the ability to interact with other researchers and to attend meetings and courses, he said.

To hear Albeanu tell it, CSHL’s colleagues appreciate the skill and determination Banerjee, whom Albeanu described as a “rare catch,” brings to the site.

“There was pretty much unanimous excitement about his vision for his research,” Albeanu said. “Pretty much everyone was in agreement that [hiring Banerjee] is a must.”

Fundamentally, Banerjee is interested in understanding how the brain computes information. In his new lab at CSHL, he wanted to study the natural behaviors that animals produce without having to teach them anything.

“That’s why my fascination arose in singing mice,” he said. “Nobody has to train them to vocalize.” He hopes to understand the neural circuits in the context of a natural behavior.

In the longer term, Banerjee is interested in contributing to the field of human communication. While numerous other creatures, such as birds, interact with each other vocally, singing from trees as they establish territorial dominance and soliciting mates through their songs, mice, which have cerebral cortexes, have brain architecture that is more similar to humans.

The Alston’s singing mice, which is found in the cloud forests of Costa Rica and Panama, is also different from numerous other species of mice. Many rodents produce vocalizations in the ultrasonic range. These animals can hear calls that are outside the range of human capacity to pick up such sounds.

The singing mice Banerjee is studying produces a stereotyped song that is audible to people. “These mice seem to specialize in this behavior,” he said. In neuroscience, scientists seek animals that are specialists with the hope that understanding that species will reveal how they work, he said.

Audible communications are important for male mice in attracting mates and in guarding their locations against other males. These lower-frequency sounds travel across greater distances.

Specifically, Banerjee would like to know the anatomical differences between the brains of typical rodents and the singing mice. He plans to probe “what kind of changes does it require for a new behavior to emerge during evolution.”

The songs have some value to the males who sing them. Females prefer males who sing more notes per unit time in a 10-second period.

In his experiments, Banerjee has demonstrated that the conventional view about one of the differences between humans and other vocalizing animals may not be accurate. Scientists had previously believed that other animals didn’t use their cortex to produce songs. Banerjee, however, showed that the motor cortex was important for vocal behaviors. Specifically, animals with temporarily inactivated cortexes could not participate in vocal interactions.

As a long term goal, Banerjee is also interested in the genetic sequence that makes the development of any anatomical or behavioral feature different in these singing mice. By using the gene editing tool CRISPR, which CSHL scientists employ regularly, Banerjee hopes to find specific genetic regions that lead to these unique behaviors.

Arkarup Banerjee with Honggoo Chae, a post-doctoral fellow at CSHL, from a Society of Neuroscience Meeting in 2018.

An extension of this research could apply to people with various communication challenges. Through studies of mice with different genetic sequences, Banerjee and other researchers can try to find genes that are necessary for more typical vocalizations. By figuring out the genetic differences, the CSHL scientist may one day discover what researchers could do to minimize these differences.

A resident of Mineola, Banerjee lives with his wife Sanchari Ghosh, who works at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory press for the preprint service bioRxiv. The couple, who met in India, spend considerable time discussing their shared interest in neuroscience. Banerjee said his wife is a “much better writer” than he and has helped edit his manuscripts.

Banerjee is passionate about teaching and hopes he has a chance to educate more students once the pandemic recedes. Outside the lab, Banerjee shares an important quality with the mice he studies: he sings. He trained as a vocalist when he was growing up in India, and listens to a range of music.

Albeanu, who was teaching a course in Bangalore, India in 2009 when he met Banerjee, said it is a “pleasure to listen to [Banerjee] singing.”

Albeanu recalls how Banerjee stood out for many reasons when he first met him, including developing a way to modify a microscope.

As for his work, Banerjee hopes to understand behaviors like vocalizations from numerous perspectives. “We can seek explanations for all of these levels,” he said.

A neuroscientist by training, Banerjee would like to determine the connection between neural circuitry and the behavior it produces. “The understanding would be incomplete if I didn’t understand why this behavior is being generated.”



This week’s shelter pet is Rocky, a 12 to 14-year-old German Shepherd mix. Rocky and his two siblings found themselves at the Smithtown Animal Shelter when their dad passed away.

While Rocky likes his siblings, he is not a fan of other animals.  Although he has significant arthritis and hearing loss, this fighter loves attention and to be around people. He comes neutered, microchipped and is up to date on his vaccines.

The staff at the shelter’s holiday wish would be to see Rocky showered with affection and to be with a family who adores him.

If you are interested in meeting Rocky, please call ahead to schedule an hour to properly interact with her in the shelter’s Meet and Greet Room.

The Smithtown Animal & Adoption Shelter is located at 410 Middle Country Road, Smithtown. Operating hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the weekend. For more information, please call 631-360-7575 or visit

Sergeant William Madden and Officer Paul Altmann were honored by SCSPCA Chief Roy Gross in front of the 6th precinct Dec. 4. Photo by Julianne Mosher

It was a ruff rescue last month when Piper the Yorkshire terrier fell down a storm drain outside his home in Coram.

A Suffolk County emergency police officer rescues a 4-month-old Yorkie Piper from a storm drain around 11:45 a.m. in front of 87 Argyle Avenue in Coram on Nov. 7. The owner of the dog Freddy Wnoa, said his wife and his two daughters were inside the home when the dog ran out of their front door and fell into the storm drain in front of their house. The dog was not injured, but the police suggested to the family that Piper needed a bath.
James Carbone/Newsday

Four officers from the Suffolk County Police Department Sixth Precinct responded to a call on Nov. 7 and began the task of climbing into the drain to save him.

“Officers safely extracted the frightened puppy and reunited it with his family,” Roy Gross, chief of Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said. Piper was, luckily, uninjured.

On Friday, Dec. 4, Gross presented certificates to Sergeant William Madden and Officer Paul Altmann outside the Selden precinct. Emergency Service Section Officer Carmine Pellegrino and Sixth Precinct Police Officer Lynn Volpe, who were not in attendance, will also be receiving certificates.

“In the 37 years that I’ve been with the Suffolk County SPCA, it’s such a great partnership because when they need us, we also need them,” Gross said. “It goes both ways, and we really appreciate the comradery we have with them.”

Seven the Barred Owl, pictured with raptor volunteer Scott Bloechle, was the star of Sweetbriar Nature Center’s Holiday Party for Wildlife and Craft Market in Smithtown Nov. 27 and 28. The well-attended event, which featured local handmade craft and artist vendors, food trucks, animal presentations and story time for the kids, raised well over $1,000 to help take care of the injured wildlife at the center. “We were very happy with the great turnout and thankful for the community support,” said Sweetbriar’s program coordinator Veronica Sayers.

Photos by Heidi Sutton

Grey Squirrel. Photo from Pixabay

By John L. Turner

While it was more than 50 years ago I remember the details sharply, as if the event had happened a few days ago. The oak I carefully but rapidly climbed was a young tree about 30 feet tall with a full canopy of branches, growing in a small patch of woods between the elementary school I had attended and a residential street (It was in these woods I first saw Pink Lady’s Slipper, a wonderful native orchid). And there in a nook where two branches emerged from the main trunk was the object of my scamper — the nest of a grey squirrel that I wanted to inspect.

My interest in squirrels and their nests came about from a book I had looked at in the junior high school library; I think it was entitled “Animal Homes”— although this factoid I don’t remember quite so clearly! But what I do remember in the book was the account which explained that grey squirrels make two types of nests — those in tree cavities, often used in winter, and the one I was going to inspect consisting of a globe-shaped leafy ball, known as a “drey,” wedged amidst branches, also used in winter but more often during the warmer months. The account mentioned that most dreys consisted of a single chamber although occasionally they make two chambers — the equivalent of a foyer leading into the living room.

Working my way up the tree I reached the destination and with a little bit of anxiety bordering on trepidation stuck my hand into the nest and felt around. Fortunately no one was home, which is what I expected since several bangs on the main trunk next to the drey had elicited no response. I quickly realized I had a two chamber nest.

The entrance chamber was the smaller of the two and I could feel a partial wall separating the two. The back chamber was about 50% bigger than the size of a curled squirrel (say that tens time fast!) I was surprised by how solid the nest felt and how thick the walls were (they can contain more than 20 layers of leaves; one researcher tickled apart the wall of a drey and found 26 leafy layers).

The thick wall of a squirrel nest serves two vital functions — helping to keep rain out and body warmth in and the leafy layered wall exceeds in doing both. The leaves act like shingles on a roof and their overlapping positioning helps to prevent water from infiltrating the nest. Similarly, the leaves help to retain heat and many experiments have documented their thermal benefits, by keeping internal nest temperatures high when occupied by the squirrel. In one study in Finland researchers found that once a red squirrel entered a drey it quickly warmed up, making the temperature inside the nest 60 to 80 degrees warmer than the surrounding air.

The latin or scientific name for the grey squirrel is Sciurus carolinensis; the genus name means “shadow tail,” a reference to the shadow the tail makes when its arched over the back of the squirrel, a common position when the animal is eating. The species name relates to Carolina, where the first squirrel was presumably first discovered and described to science.

Grey squirrels live up to their name, being grey in coloration, but if you get a chance to view a squirrel up close you’ll see the pelage is a bit more colorful. Occasionally while birding I’ll train my binoculars on a nearby squirrel and I am always taken by their subtle beauty, enrobed as they are in muted earth tone colors. The squirrel’s underside is white and it’s face, tail, and armpit is diffused with brown. There’s a flecking of black, white, and brown or tan peppered throughout the grey fur. Melanistic (all black) and albinistic (all white) squirrels occur with melanistic being the more common of the two rare pelages, but even these blacks squirrels make up less than one percent of the population. I remember, as a child,when visiting my aunt who lived in Rye, New York seeing a population of black squirrels that lived in the forest next to a golf course.

When it comes to managing their food supply rodents generally display two types of behaviors: scatter hoarding or centralized or “larder” hoarding, with grey squirrels practicing the former (chipmunks employ the latter). If you watch grey squirrels in the fall you’ll see them carrying acorns and other nuts burying them (or caching them) in dozens of locations. This behavior suggests they possess very good memories, which they indeed do, since 95 to 99% of the cached nuts are recovered and eaten.

I recently watched acorn caching involving a squirrel on my front lawn. The squirrel walked slowly and then stopped to paw the earth, followed by some sniffing, the way a squirrel assesses the suitability of the site in the grass in which to hide the acorn. It did this three or four times apparently unhappy with something about each of the sites until it finally met the right set of squirrelly conditions at a site near a tall holly tree. Scratching quickly with its front paws the squirrel quickly buried the acorn. Its scattered larder was now one acorn larger.

Grey squirrels are quite adept at differentiating acorns from different oak species; they “know” that acorns from white oaks germinate in the fall while those of red oaks do so in the following spring and, not surprisingly, eat the white oak acorns first while storing acorns from red oaks. Another advantage to this strategy, besides eating acorns that would be lost to germination if they tried to store them, comes from the fact that tannin levels in red oak acorns (tannin is the ingredient that makes your lips pucker when drinking red wine) lessens over time, making the acorns less bitter and more palatable.

We’re not sure if squirrel lips pucker when eating tannic acorns but I do know they develop a large stained moustache while and after eating black walnuts. Despite the impending facial smudge they’ll develop, they look like the definition of contentment as they hold the prized walnut in their paws and proceed to gnaw through the green husk to get to the walnut shell and meat that lays within.

We have another squirrel species that roams the forest of Long Island: the Southern Flying Squirrel. Strictly nocturnal, this little living fabric of “flying” carpet can be seen at bird feeding stations where it’s especially fond of suet. Of course, they don’t fly but rather glide from one tree to another, using an extended fold of skin on each side of its body connecting front and back legs. Their flattened tail helps to serve as a rudder and brake.

Many years ago I worked in a nature preserve and one day went to look at some white baneberry growing along a trail I knew was developing fruits (also known as doll’s eyes due to the resemblance of the fruits to the eyes once used in old fashioned porcelain dolls, white baneberry is in the buttercup family). As I neared the plants I noticed, at the base of a large chestnut oak on the other side of the trail, a small brownish object. Inspecting it I realized it was a freshly dead flying squirrel. I sadly wondered if the squirrel had misjudged the location of the tree or got carried by the wind and collided with the tree with such force that it caused its demise.

While I’ll never know what killed that flying squirrel so many years ago, I do know the cause of many squirrel deaths today— roadkill. Grey Squirrels routinely cross roads that are within their territory; unfortunately, they have no awareness of cars as lethal objects. In one study a state wildlife biologist counted 390 dead squirrels along a fifty mile stretch of highway in New Hampshire.

As I drive Long Island roads I’m constantly alert for squirrels bounding out from the road shoulder (and other wildlife like box turtles); so far so good — while I’ve had a number of close calls with darting squirrels I haven’t hit one.

I’m very grateful I haven’t hit a squirrel with my car and even more grateful of the experience I had, climbing an oak tree half a century ago, since it was the catalyst for developing a lifelong fondness of squirrels.

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

Photos courtesy of Pixabay

Suzie. Photo from Smithtown Animal Shelter


This week’s shelter pet is Suzie, a 12-year-old Border Collie waiting at the Smithtown Animal Shelter to be adopted in time for the holidays. She and her two senior siblings sadly lost their dad and want to live out their golden years showered with love.

Suze does have significant arthritis and a chronic skin disease. She is available for adoption or forever foster in a home that can manager her medication. She has a young and playful spirit, even if her body isn’t always up to it. She loves to be petted, to be outside exploring and FOOD! She can live with another calm dog and children ages 12 and up. She is spayed, microchipped and up to date on her vaccines.

If you are interested in meeting Suzie, please call ahead to schedule an hour to properly interact with her in the shelter’s Meet and Greet Room.

The Smithtown Animal & Adoption Shelter is located at 410 Middle Country Road, Smithtown. Operating hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the weekend. For more information, please call 631-360-7575 or visit



This week’s shelter pet is Betty, a 9-year-old pit bull mix waiting at the Smithtown Animal Shelter. Betty has a sweet and loving nature, and needs to be in an adult only home with no other pets. She loves to cuddle and sleep.

Betty’s history is unknown, but this loving dog does need someone that is experienced with the breed and can manager her significant arthritis.  She is spayed, microchipped and up to date on her vaccines.

If you are interested in meeting Betty, please call ahead to schedule an hour to properly interact with her in the shelter’s Meet and Greet Room.

The Smithtown Animal & Adoption Shelter is located at 410 Middle Country Road, Smithtown. Operating hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the weekend. For more information, please call 631-360-7575 or visit

By Tara Mae

Something wild is coming to Smithtown. Sweetbriar Nature Center now offers A Wildlife Experience, a unique program offering one hour private guided tours that grant unprecedented access to its buildings, operations, and animals. Located at 62 Eckernkamp Drive, the nonprofit organization provides natural science education and native wildlife rehabilitation services for the community.

The personal tours will allow participants to see the center’s recently renovated wildlife rehabilitation area, now called the Steven Goldman clinic, which is usually off limits to visitors.

“It’s an experience that you’re not going to get anywhere else,” said Veronica Sayers, Sweetbriar’s program coordinator. “It’s not very often that you can see how a wildlife rehab works. You don’t normally get this experience unless you’re in the field.”

Attendees will also be able to explore parts of the main building, which houses some of Sweetbriar’s permanent residents and is generally open for self-guided excursions.

Guests will be able to observe the animals and meet a few of Sweetbriar’s regular ambassadors like Cali, an imprinted Baltimore oriole; Marguerite, an imprinted blue jay; Nugget, a screech owl; and Tulip, an opossum.

The tours give insight into more than the lives of the animals; they delve into the backgrounds of Sweetbriar and the Blydenburgh family, on whose estate the center and preserve now exist. Guides are able to supply greater historical context as well as details about the architecture of the structures and grounds, according to Janine Bendicksen, Sweetbriar’s curator and wildlife rehabilitation director, who came up with the initial idea.

One of four staff members, Ms. Bendicksen noted that she, her coworkers, and the dedicated team of volunteers are constantly brainstorming for ways to keep Sweetbriar operational in the time of COVID-19. The private tours are a way to raise money and benefit the community Sweetbriar serves. “Instead of just asking for money and donations, we are giving back,” she explained.

During the pandemic, Sweetbriar, like many organizations, has had to completely reimagine how it functions. At the peak of the lockdown, the employees were looking after approximately 100 animals by themselves, without the assistance of volunteers, according to Ms. Sayers. In this time of emotional turmoil and economic uncertainty, Sweetbriar has sought to create new ways of connecting with the public and supporting the animals in its care.

As sources of revenue shrunk, animals in need of help were being brought to the center at a higher rate than in years past. “Many rehab centers are experiencing this,” said Ms. Bendicksen. Since the beginning of 2020, the center has treated more than 2,000 animals.

Sweetbriar Nature Center administers comprehensive rehabilitation to wildlife and generates much of its funding from community engagement and outreach programs. Located on 54 acres of diverse woodland, garden, wetland, and field habitats, the center’s grounds are open year-round to the public, free of charge. Since the onset of the pandemic it has been unable to host the events and activities it normally offers, on which Sweetbriar largely relies to support its animals and endeavors.

A Wildlife Experience is available to parties of up to six people by appointment only for $104. People may register and pay the fee online at After you purchase your ticket, Sweetbriar will email you to set up a date or they can send you a gift card to book at a later time. Please give them at least 3 days to respond after you’ve purchased your ticket. The tours are mask-mandated and photos are encouraged.

For more information, please call 631-979-6344.

All photos courtesy of Sweetbriar Nature Center.

Photo from Town of Brookhaven

Town of Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Daniel P. Losquadro has announced the sale of personalized video messages from Santa, in lieu of the annual Holiday Light Spectacular featuring in-person visits with Santa at the Holtsville Ecology Site. All proceeds from the sale of the video, which costs $25, will go directly to the feeding and care of the more than 100 animals residing there.

Parents or loved ones can visit to complete a brief questionnaire about their child or children. In the spirit of Christmas magic, they will then receive a unique, personalized video message from Santa via email. Messages may include up to five children. The videos also include behind-the-scenes footage of Santa visiting with the animals who reside at the Holtsville Ecology Site year-round.

“While we are very disappointed that we are unable to host our Holiday Light Spectacular this year, we came up with an alternative that would still allow children to experience that special visit with Santa Claus in a very personal way,” said Sup. Losquadro.

A OneDrive link to your customized Santa video (MP4 file) will be sent to you via email as soon as production is complete. You will receive your video no later than Dec. 23. Please note, only a limited number of videos will be sold/produced; order early to insure you receive a message from Santa. For more information, please call 631-451-9276.