Friday, September 5, 2014

Thinking Outside the (nest) Box

Marbled Murrelet 

Portia Halbert, of Humboldt State University, was thinking outside the (nest) box when she came up with a unique idea to save the endangered Marbled murrelet, a small seabird that feeds at sea and nests only in old growth forests. 

Stellar jays and Ravens eat murrelet eggs, so giving them a reason to never eat another was her clever idea. So far so good, but outsmarting a Jay can be tricky. Read the full story: Dietary Lessons
A box of chicken eggs painted to look like marbled murrelet eggs. The eggs contain a chemical that induces vomiting. Scientists are trying to teach the endangered bird's predator, a type of jay, to avoid murrelet eggs.
Marbled Murrelet conservation

Friday, August 15, 2014

Upgrading the cells at San Quentin

Lolita  at the  Miami Seaquarium
 SeaWorld to Upgrade Killer Whale Habitats
The Wall Street Journal

"SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. (SEAS), suffering from negative publicity and flagging attendance, plans to announce on Friday a new expansion of the habitats housing its signature killer whales."

First let's define the word habitat, because saying you are going to upgrade a captive marine mammal's habitat sounds upbeat, doesn't it? Like adding wallpaper to a prisoner's cell at San Quentin or Sing Sing, and putting in a porcelain toilet with a heated seat.

Encarta ® World English Dictionary © defines habitat as:
1.  ecology home environment: the natural conditions and environment in which a plant or animal lives, e.g. forest, desert, wetlands, OR OCEAN.
2.  typical location: the place in which a person or group is usually found -- OR OCEAN.
3.  artificially created environment: a sealed controlled environment in which people OR CAPTIVE ANIMALS can live OR BE KEPT ALIVE in unusual conditions such as under the sea or in space. OR IN A CONCRETE TANK.

"The company is locked in a battle with animal-rights activists, who say that training and publicly performing killer whales is an inherently cruel act. The documentary "Blackfish," which has been screened in cinemas and broadcast multiple times by CNN, raised these criticisms to a higher level of public awareness, and has harmed the company's financial results."

So SeaWorld's solution: Add 15 feet of depth to their pool and 5 million more gallons of water. Happy Whales. And their real motivation? "Investors haven't been kind. SeaWorld shares fell by one-third on Wednesday and are off nearly 50% over the past 12 months. The stock declined another 4.8% to $18 on Thursday."

We can still fix this by not going to SeaWorld or the Miami Seaquarium, now or ever.

Lolita is 21 feet long in a tank that is 23 feet deep. She shares this space with 3 Pacific White-sided dolphins. It has been her habitat for 44 years.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Tale of a Nose by Sallie Reynolds

Charcoal by Sallie Reynolds
Sallie and I were emailing back and forth a week or so ago, and somehow the subject of Turkey Vultures came up. I told her about my friend Shelia Gaby, who did her PhD thesis on Turkey Vultures. As I recall she would cannon-net them at the Miami dump to tag them. The president of the University of Miami visited the site one day and, while helping Sheila tag one of her subjects, was thrown up upon. My version of the story is secondhand at best, so Sheila feel free to correct me. I then commented to Sallie that If I could come back as an animal, it would be a Turkey Vulture. That's always good for an UGH! My reason: they don't kill their own food, love to sit with their backs to the sun, never have a bad hair day, can soar on thermals with their friends, and rarely dine alone. Ahhh, what a life." GR

The Tale of a Nose by Sallie Reynolds

Ginny loves Turkey Vultures as much as I do. But most of you probably don't often think about them, any more than you think about garbage collectors. Silently, these birds perform a similar great service. Many more animals die than can be consumed quickly by predators, scavenging mammals, insects, and microbes. So it's avian sanitary engineers to the rescue: From the air, they find carcasses more quickly and can get to them speedily. And since the sight of descending vultures is like a dinner bell, a carcass is often picked clean by a large crew, within hours.

You can Google “New World Vultures” and find the basics of their lives (try my website: for a detailed introduction). But here are a few esoteric bits:

The story of our Turkey Vulture, or TUVU – one of the two vultures we have in California – is the tale of a nose. TUVUs are different from other vultures. They have a keen sense of smell, much keener than the famous nose of bloodhounds, much much keener than the noses of all other vultures (except two cousins in South America). Miles away and high overhead, they sniff out all newly dead creatures. Hawks, eagles, and other diurnal hunters find their prey by sharp eyesight; owls, being nocturnal, find theirs largely by hearing. TUVU uses his nose. It's not that other birds can't smell – we're discovering that that old wives tale is false. But TUVU's nose rules and he is the first to the party. Good thing, too, because, unlike hawks and owls, TUVUs can't kill with their wimpy feet, and their beaks are not very powerful either. This may be one reason they hang around roads: cars carve up the dinner beast before they get there, so they can eat fast before the rough, tough coyotes arrive and drive them away.

The adult w/ red head, shows the incredible nostril of this smelling machine
Vultures not only clean up dead animals, they reduce contaminants in the soil around their dining room. Their super-acid digestive juices (truly odoriferous!) kill many serious pathogens, including those causing salmonella poisoning, rabies, and anthrax. The indigestible bits from their meal are then compacted by the gizzard into a large pellet. This they regurgitate, a little present for microbes (microbes have the last word on us all). And since bird poop is mostly liquid and their intestines don't store wastes, the slurry is eliminated as it is produced. Vultures squirt it onto their own legs, apparently as a cooling mechanism, but it also sprays generously onto the ground, a tidy if stinky solution to potentially dangerous problem.

Whew! Did I say “keen noses?” Well, yes; even though they love smells we hate, they are, in own their way, quite discriminating. A few years ago, a captive TUVU developed a strong attachment to one of his keepers. He'd approach the fence when the man appeared and behave in a friendly manner. Then the man died. Two years later, his wife visited the compound and approached the TUVU's cage. The bird made a bee-line for her, displaying all the signs of recognition and affection he had shown toward his friend. Turns out she was wearing her dead husband's jacket.

This extraordinary nose lets the TUVU perform another little service: Before piping gas from a well to a storage tank, gas companies perfume the odorless natural product with ethyl mercaptan, the chemical produced by decomposing bodies. When a pipe springs a leak, TUVUs quickly gather overhead. Company crews can then find the leak and repair the pipe.
Fledgling with gray head and blue eye.
What would happen if these birds disappeared? In the last 20 years, India and Pakistan have seen their billions of vultures dwindle to a few thousand, poisoned by a cheap non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle raised for leather and dog-food exports. For millennia, the birds had kept down filth and pathogens, even in large over-crowded cities. But today, garbage areas have become stinking sumps and rabies is spreading from the mammalian scavengers to humans.

Fortunately this is in no danger of happening here. In the US today our vultures are thriving: TUVUs are common and increasing. The smaller, scrappier Black Vulture, found in the East and South, is moving into new territories. And the California Condor, after a truly dramatic recovery process, is coming back from the very brink of extinction.

The line drawing is of a single vulture, from a photo of a wall painting in Catal Huyuk, Turkey, from about 8000 years ago.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Miami Animal Shelter by Melissa Rey

Melissa and I have been email buddies for a couple years now. She'll be a junior in high school and is a straight A student. (No surprise.) When she wrote me yesterday about these kittens, I was reminded of my own experiences with the Miami Animal Shelter—still a contradiction in terms.  

I wish Melissa’s story was a rare one, but mostly I wish she had met someone with a heart, who saw a kid trying to do what irresponsible adults failed to do, and I wish that woman had kept her big, stupid mouth shut. A pox on her and the people who dumped the kittens.

Melissa took the same route I did 35 years ago. She wrote about it. I have changed nothing in her story except to spell out the numeral 15.

My Experience with the Animal Shelter in Miami
Melissa Rey
There are moments in my life in which I am able to look at the world and have some faith in humanity. Yesterday, however, was not one of those moments. It was one of those days in which you witness such tragedy, that you no longer know what to think about society. It was approximately 3:00 in the afternoon in Miami, Florida, in an area that is rather polluted and very, very hot. It was about 95 degrees outside and the humidity made me feel as though I were in a sauna.
            I had an appointment in this area and as I prepared to get inside of my car after my appointment, I heard high-pitched meowing. Curious, I stepped out of my car and on the side of the road I found 3 kittens that had been placed in a black crate with a dirty cloth, some garbage, and a combination of rice and soil. The kittens were attempting to get out of the crate in an effort to find some shade, but they lacked the strength to get out. Their eyes were a beautiful clear blue, and I estimated they were about 2 weeks old. I could tell they had been deliberately left there as there is no way 2-week-old kittens can get into the crate by themselves and there is absolutely no way a mother cat will leave her babies. I was struck by the mental image of those little ones being cruelly ripped away from their mother and watched them as they huddled together seeking comfort.
            I now had two choices: I could leave the kittens alone so that they could die a lonely, torturous death where they would most likely starve, dehydrate, and bake under the hot sun or I could “rescue” them and take them to the shelter. I went on to pick up the kittens and sat in the backseat of the car with the kittens on my lap. On the 15 minute trip to the shelter, the kittens were so thirsty that they desperately licked the moisture on my arms. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I had seen in my whole life. They quieted as I held them in my arms and stroked their fluffy fur.
            Fifteen minutes later, at approximately 3:30, we arrived at the “shelter.” I was not impressed by the exterior. Quite frankly, the exterior of this “shelter” looked more like a death camp or prison. It was dirty, loud, and the employees were harsh and unhelpful. I was directed to this cat drop off area that was surprisingly clean. To the right of the wall were a series of cages that housed a variety of stray cats that had been rescued and were being put up for adoption. There were some people there in the process of adopting cats. For a brief moment, I was content because I thought these little ones would be put into a loving home. However, I was wrong. I was very wrong.
            When I walked in with the kittens, this young woman approached me telling me she was an employee. As soon as I saw this woman, my hopes began to go down. She had a very negative personality and her face told me that not only did she not want to be working there, but she did not care at all for those cats. I told her how I had found the kittens and after hearing my story, she told me to take them back to where I had found them. I looked at her with a combination of shock and disgust. I told her, “I can’t. They’re going to die.”
            She looks at me and she says, “They’re too young. Either you can take them back where you found them or keep them until they are 1.5 pounds and then bring them back. If you leave them here, they will be euthanized by tonight.” When she told me that, I felt very numb. However, I did not have a choice. I live in an apartment where cats are not allowed and I do not have the money to take care of 3 kittens anyway. Once again, I was faced with two choices. I could leave them here to die what I hope was a painless, quick death, or I can take them back and they would die a slow, torturous, and painful death.
            I had no choice but to leave them here. She pointed to a small cage by the window which was separate from the rest of the cats. When I attempted to put them in the cage, the kittens clung on to me and my shirt and I had to physically remove the cloth from their little claws. I couldn’t bear to watch them all snuggled up in their sad little cage, so I immediately turned away. This employee then gives me a paper which was titled “Good Samaritan.” On this paper, I had to put down my information so that the cats could be “put to sleep.” I had the urge to rip up this paper. At that moment, I felt like everything but a Good Samaritan. I had just given my consent so that three babies could be murdered.
            I walked quickly out of there, got into the car, and didn’t look back. My grandparents dropped me off at my house, and I just walked to my room and laid in bed. The moment I did that I broke down. I felt like an absolutely horrible person. The disgust and horror at what I had witnessed left me feeling sick. All I could think about were those kittens. I imagined their terror and discomfort at being put in a cold metal cage. I didn’t even want to begin to imagine how they had been euthanized or how their little bodies had been dumped into the garbage as if they were worthless trash.
            This is not just an issue in Miami. This is a nationwide crisis. This “shelter” does not have the right to be called that. It is a prison for the innocent and defenseless. This “shelter” is a death camp. My experience is not unique at all. This happens to thousands and thousands of poor, defenseless animals every year. If we do not have any respect and love for these defenseless creatures, how can we expect respect and love amongst our own selves? 


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Blog Slug

Slime Mold
Banana Slug
I've been remiss in keeping up my blog posts. I'd like to think it's because I've finally joined other denizens of my forest and slowed the pace of my life down, but it's not true. Well, it is true, if sitting in front of a computer screen counts. My fingers fly, my brain tries to keep pace, but my rear end rarely budges. I believe one must have the perseverance and focus of a slug to be a writer. The only thing slower is slime mold, but I'd like to think I have more substance, more direction, bigger dreams.
 I did want to share this interview with you. Kellee Moye is a middle school teacher in Florida. She's been teaching Hurt Go Happy in her classes since it came out in 2006. She's not a slug. She reads more books than seems humanly possible, especially as a new Mom, and I'm eternally grateful to her for supporting my writing endeavors. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Schneider Family Book Award which Hurt Go Happy won in 2008. Kellee interviewed me for the anniversary. Unleashing Readers

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Don't Get Mad Chokoloskee, Get Even.

Chokoloskee, FL by
 The summer is getting away from me. I've spent a week in my friend Teresa's 'cabin' (3X the size of my house) just outside Yosemite, and another at a friend's cabin in Mammoth Lakes. If you think I've been sitting on the decks with my feet on the railing, think again. I've been writing and rewriting the book for Scholastic. Then this morning, a friend sent me this article by Scott McIntyre for The New York Times.

Smallwood's Store in Chokoloskee, FL

The book I've written for Scholastic is about a dolphin. The first book I wrote, thirty some odd years ago, was also about a dolphin. Smallwood's Store played a huge part in Dolphin Sky. The last scene took place there. If you haven't read Dolphin Sky (now out of print and only available on Kindle) but the Smallwood Store sounds familiar to you, it might be because Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson took place there. My husband was their accountant. Iris Smallwood was a friend, and became one of my favorite characters in the book. I have ties. Strong ties.

Here's the quote from the Times story:

"Most famously, it was the spot where, on Oct. 24, 1910, Edgar Watson, an outlaw and fearsome sugar cane plantation owner with a reputation for killing instead of paying his workers, was gunned down by a group of fed-up residents. The shootout was richly told by the writer Peter Matthiessen in “Killing Mister Watson,” the first part of an award-winning trilogy about the man."

Ted Smallwood
Smallwood Store by

“Smallwood Store is the last of its kind; there should be a little more public respect for it,” said J. Robert Houghtaling, a Florida musician who wrote a song about the fight. “We don’t want to read about what it used to be like after it’s gone.”

Monday, June 2, 2014

Max, the WONDER-ful Dog

Barely a peep out of me in two months, but I have not been idle. I spent 3 weeks in Florida, Texas and Missouri: research, fun with friends, and visiting middle schools. I finished the first draft of my yet untitled novel about an autistic 4-year-old and a dolphin. It will be published by Scholastic Books in the spring of next year.

In early May, two friends and I flew to Japan, boarded a cruise ship and sailed back across the Pacific to Vancouver. Another 3 weeks away from home. I like cruising, and riding on trains, for great places to write.

Those are my alibis. I got home Monday and on Thursday, May 29, my God-dog died. Max Sholars was my friend Teresa's soul-mate. For 15 years, they shared a bond stronger than any I have ever known. They were probably apart, in total, less than a full month in all those years.

I'm posting this, with Teresa's permission, because, if you have loved an animal deeply, you know how she is suffering. I'm not going to write about how exceptional Max was--his total devotion to her; her total devotion to him. This is about all our dogs and cats and birds. The purest love many of us will ever know will come from a non-human soul-mate. 

Along with grieving for the dog that I have also loved for the last 15 years, I've been remembering the other special beings in my life. It's a comfort--kind of. It reminds me that I got past losing them. Even when I didn't think I could take that kind of pain again, I did and I have. If reading this brings similar memories, then you have, too. And Teresa will. We all heal, only the scars stay.

This morning I was also thinking about how we each handle sharing this most personal of losses--reaching out to some, holding others at bay. At the same time we so desperately need to be alone with our grief, we also need people, but only those close enough to understand what a catastrophic loss we are experiencing.

Through each of my non-human losses, it has been the memory of that love, and then the love of friends and family that has set the healing in motion. There's a certain irony in that, isn't there? Love heals the loss of a loved one. 

A friend sent Teresa this poem; she sent it to me. I'm sending it to you.
The House Dog's Grave by Robinson  Jeffers

I've changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you'd soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the night through
I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read--and I fear often grieving for me--
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope than when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dear, that's too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. . . .
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.