About this blog...

Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about zoos, the natural world, and writing. Welcome to the erratic thoughts of a zoo mystery author! See ZooMysteries.com for more photos and information about my books. Click here for cool sites about elephants and conservation organizations.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Book review: The Last Tortoise

The Last Tortoise: A Tale of Extinction in Our Lifetime, Craig B. Stanford, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.

Stanford is a professor of anthropology and biological sciences. While his previous publications are mostly in primatology, he has written a swell book on tortoises. Not interested in reptiles? Think again. Stanford's engaging prose and passion for his subjects will pull you in, and his perspective rises well above the ground where tortoises plod.

The Last Tortoise describes the taxon and the species, then the challenges facing it, closing with conservation opportunities. Here's a few things I learned:

* Tortoises run on relatively small quantities of low-grade fuel. Therefore, grasslands can support incredible population densities compared to grazing mammals. I never imagined fields full of giant tortoises.

* New word: Brumate--approximately the reptile equivalent of hibernation, in which body processes slow down and therefore require less nutrient intake.

* Female tortoises can store sperm for up to several years. Gender of the offspring is determined primarily by incubation temperature, with perhaps some chromosomal contribution.

* As China becomes less poor, it is driving the demand for wildlife products. The Chinese eat vast numbers of turtles, some of which are farm raised in ponds. They also eat the far less fecund terrestrial tortoises, which are wild caught. (Note: Here in the US, we did a pretty good job of driving diamondback terrapins toward extinction in the 1800s for the US and European gourmet markets.)

* As a tortoise species dwindles, its price goes up, driving more collecting from the wild.

* US tortoises are not doing much better than African or Asian tortoises. The desert tortoise and gopher tortoise suffer from many human-caused ails, including the usual culprit of "development."

Stanford is a passionate advocate for his subjects, and he pulls no punches about the trend in tortoise numbers, from his title onward. Human predation will eliminate most species from their ecosystems and very soon at that. If they survive, it will be as little groups in captivity.

Stanford recommends a variety of locally-tailored conservation strategies, such as training locals to breed and release tortoises in protected habitat, reserves on isolated islands, and working with pet owners to provide hatchlings for release. Some of these ideas are radical and require careful analysis and cautious experimentation, for example, using Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises to replace extinct giant tortoise species.

I bought my copy through HerpDigest, a newsletter devoted to reptile and amphibian conservation. It's easy if you use PayPal. Just use the "send money" function for $30 to this account: asalzberg@herpdigest.org Be sure to include your address in the note. If you don't use PayPal, send an email to that address for more payment options.

Here's another review, by David S. Lee of the Tortoise Reserve that adds additional information about conservation.


I'd get along just fine if you folks would leave me alone.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Not Just Traditionally Published

Listen here, campers. I may be a boomer and I may no longer claim desk space in the Information Technology department, but my techo-licks are not (yet) entirely lame. Night Kill and Did Not Survive are Out There in Kindle-land.

Moreover, I was interviewed today by David Wisehart for his site Kindle Author.

I'm a Kindle Author, got that? Now let's see the respect.


Yeah, I'm a ground squirrel and she's an English sparrow. Wanna make something of it?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks to Conservationists

I have a lot to be thankful for, but I'm restricting this post to those who labor in the fields of conservation or environmentalism, to use the more recent term.

* Thank you to those with the endless patience to negotiate with farmers and ranchers to find solutions to human/wildlife conflicts.

* Thank you to the people with the stamina to endure meeting after meeting to plan how land will be used--the people who speak up for natural areas in the face of economic pressure, the people who understand that "balance" means only deciding how much we will destroy, but who persevere anyway.

* Thank you to the astoundingly ingenious and cheerful folk who teach our young to appreciate pond life and raptors and trees.

* Thank you to the researchers in the often uncomfortable and dangerous wild, collecting the information we need to understand how to support the wild in the face of the changes we create.

* Thank you to everyone who wrote a check or volunteered or sent a letter in support of wilderness designation, greenhouse gas reduction, sane harvest regulations, marine reserves, and other efforts to spare the planet our excesses.

* Thank you to those who take the trouble to educate yourself and then keep these issues in mind when you vote.

I am grateful for all your efforts on this Thanksgiving, the day we celebrate abundance and good fortune.


Bird Creek Meadows, Mt. Adams, Washington


Pronghorn, Central Oregon

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: Forbidden Creatures

Forbidden Creatures, by Peter Laufer, explores the reasons people want exotic pets, in particular, dangerous ones. He is amazed, and you may be, too, at how many tigers, cougars, pythons, macaws, etc. are in private hands. Most of what you can see at a zoo you can buy on the internet. Caveat emptor--these animals often end up dumped at sanctuaries or killed when they become too big, aggressive, or expensive.

Laufer's strategy is to interview people who live or work in unusual situations with exotic animals. He covers a lot of ground, for example, a woman and her daughter who drugged and smuggled a baby rhesus macaque through US customs; the mish-mash of federal, state, and local regulations covering non-domestic pets; actress Tippi Hedren's sanctuary for unwanted lions and tigers; a tiger in a cage in a feed store; a woman who breeds chimpanzees and monkeys for sale; and biologists dealing with the invasion of ex-pet Burmese pythons in Florida.

It's fascinating stuff, but not well analyzed. Laufer can't be blamed for the lack of statistics about exotic animal ownership--apparently there aren't any--but his attempt to answer why people crave intimate relationships with unusual and/or dangerous animals never quite jells. Partly that's because the reasons are varied. Among them are a need for emotional intimacy combined with a lack of the social skills required to love and be loved by humans, a desire to control ("subjugate") a powerful animal, profit (a very large factor), and prestige. It seems safe to add that some of these people have serious mental health problems, and some have far more interest in profit than in animal welfare. That said, owning a wild animal is a common inclination, and many, perhaps most, of us have kept at least a turtle or two.

One thing that struck me in most of the interviews with exotic animals owners was how insistent they were that the animal "bond" with them, that there must be a reciprocal emotional attachment. It seems not to occur to big cat owners, for example, that a lion "loving" a great ape (i.e., a human) is an odd expectation and that its fulfillment will be incomplete at best. I learned early on, working with volunteers at a zoo, to be wary of those who claimed to have a special bond with animals--they were mostly oblivious to species-specific signals and quick to take foolish risks. The owners described here also show a lack of interest in enabling the animal to exercise its full range of natural behaviors. Companionship of its own kind, housing that includes what the animal would use in the wild (tree stumps, dirt to dig in, etc.) is of little interest. Toys, yes, and cute costumes for monkeys, of course.

This contrasts to my experience as a zoo keeper. We made sincere, if often inadequate, efforts to provide as natural an environment as circumstances permitted, and I am confident that few exotic pet owners come anywhere near the enclosures, food, and social opportunities an accredited zoo provides its denizens. I hand-raised baby monkeys because they were rejected by their--also hand-raised--mothers and worked hard to integrate the young animals back with their own kind to break that cycle. This is a common story in zoos, where hand-raising is preferred only under unusual circumstances. Zoos don't want tame animals that relate to people. They want socially normal animals that get along with their own kind.

Laufer is an Oregon journalist who also wrote The Dangerous World of Butterflies, so he is experienced with the topic of animals, legal and not, and the people who acquire, keep, breed, and sell them. His focus really is people--he is not a biologist. He includes monkeys in the term "great apes" and refers to all captive snakes as "long snakes." He is blithe about leaving his bird-killing cat to roam, against his vet's advice, because he appreciates the wild nature of that cat, but apparently not the wild nature of its prey. To his credit, he had the sand to put a snake on the cover, despite the conventional wisdom that no one will buy a book if they have to look at a snake on their bedside or coffee table.

Read this as an introduction to the topic and for cautionary tales about acquiring species that have no evolutionary shaping to prepare them for living with us. Read it and develop a healthy skepticism toward those cute videos of adult lions hugging their former owners and darling chimpanzees in costumes selling cars and insurance. Read it and wonder at human ignorance and egoism, as well as our optimistic, faltering efforts to connect with other species.


House pet? (Picture by Nancy Parker)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Blogging with the Librarians

Here's a couple of fun blogs featuring yours truly.

This is from Lisa Holstine, who manages the Velma Teague Library in Glendale, AZ. She organized a reading for me last month and then blogged about it, bless her heart!

And this is a guest blog I wrote for another library:
Saxton B. Little Free Library of Columbia, CT, invited by Carol A. Kubala, Adult Services Librarian.

I LOVE librarians!


And so does Murphy

Sunday, November 14, 2010

MS Word for Authors: Underline to Italic and vice versa

You might want to first read the post "MS Word for Authors: Secrets of Find and Replace," from 10/31/2010. This is a follow up tidbit.

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While italic for emphasis seems to be gaining ground, I'm told that some editors still want underline instead. Switching back and forth in your ms. is a trifle tricky, but put this on a sticky on your monitor and you'll know how to do it whenever you need to.

First, here's how to change underline to italic. Try this on a test document.

On a PC: Open the Find and Replace dialog box and click in "Find what." Then use the key command for underline: Ctrl+U. Beneath "Find what", note the label "Format". Do the key command a couple times and note that "Format" toggles through Underline, No Underline, and blank. Leave it set to Underline. The "Find what" box should still be empty.

Then click in the "Replace with" box. Use Ctrl+U. Do it again, so that Format is set to No Underline. With the cursor still there, use the key command for italic: Ctrl+I. "Format" should now read "Font: Italic No Underline". Again, leave the box above empty.

Now click Replace All.

To recap, you have to specifically turn off underline, you can't just replace it with italic. And you must turn off underline and turn on italic in a single step.

On the Mac I have available for testing, the Find and Replace box does not respond to the keyboard commands. Instead, open Find and Replace, click in "Find what" and use the Format button in the dialog box--Format/Font. Find "Underline style" and select "None". Click OK. Then click in the "Replace with" box, go back to Format/Font and, at Font Style, select Italic. Click OK. Click on Replace All.

In reverse: Set "Find what" to italic. Set "Replace with" to Underline, Not Italic. Replace All.

On the Mac, for Underline, select the single line.

Thank you to my friend Bill who reminded me how to do this. Give it a try and if it doesn't work or if you have a better method, please add a comment.


Sometimes things get confusing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Book Review: "Zoo Story--Life in the Garden of Captives"

Zoo Story, by Thomas French, is a journalist's history of six years at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida. While I can fault French for overuse of trite expressions such as "alpha males" (referring to humans), this is an excellent book for anyone interested in zoos. He starts with wild African elephants transported to the US, rather than being shot to reduce over population, and uses that to explore what zoos have to offer animals and their visitors.

The book traces the rise and fall of Lowry Park Zoo from a back-water institution to a star attraction, and the subsequent fall from grace of the man who engineered its transformation. French has the good sense and journalist skills to talk to multiple layers of staff, keepers as well as management. He interweaves stories of individual animals and humans. Best of all, he tackles the real issues that zoos face, including the eternal conflicts among funding, animal welfare, and conservation. Animals get sick and die, animals escape and are shot, employees come and go, a zoo's reputation rises and falls.

French avoids the happy-talk of cute stories that most books by zoo professionals rely on and avoids as well the sentimentality and ignorance that assert that all animals in zoos are suffering and would be better off in the wild. He tells a great story with great characters.

Recommended for anyone interested in zoos or in our relationship with animals.