About this blog...

Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On the road with Night Kill

My blogging runs toward two themes: conservation issues and the adventures of my first zoo mystery, Night Kill. Today's blog is on the latter. But I'll be traveling for the next couple of weeks and may stray into travelogue as well.

Yesterday, Saturday December 13, I had a signing at the Sacramento Zoo and it was really a blast. A tour from the zoo's director, Mary Healy, got me off to a wonderful start. Mary's knowledge, resume, and skills are impressive (amazing, actually), she knew several friends from my zoo days, the Sacramento Zoo has a wonderful collection, and even the weather was good. To say I enjoyed the tour is a massive understatement! Next time you're in Sacramento, go for the black and white ruffed lemurs, stay for the flamingos. And a fine cat collection, a breeding group of thick-billed parrots and and and...

Pam Williams, the developement director, and Eileen Rodriguez, the gift shop manager, were incredibly hospitable and considerate and made the tableing experience a delight. We sold some books, I talked to docents, staff, and visitors, and then a passle of my California relatives showed up. What a great experience! It was capped off by a late lunch at the wild and wonderful Tower Cafe, with all those relations.

I finished up the Sacramento leg of my trip with a visit to Elmer Aldrich, a 93 year old family friend who is a life-long biologist and conservationists. We chatted about his friendship with Ansel Adams, his award from Glen Olson, and his current (!) service with Save the American River. How impressive can you get?

Here's a few photos from the zoo, taken by my sister, Nancy Parker. Thanks, Sis!
Bongo with his Christmas tree and treats. He loved it!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Me and Ursula Le Guin

OMG! I signed my new book at the same table as Ursula LeGuin signed hers! Iiiiieeeeeeee! (teenage girly squeal).

Ahem. To put this coherently, in a mature sort of way: the Audubon Society of Portland held its annual Wild Arts Festival this last weekend. In addition to many wonderful artists, the event also hosts 30-odd writers. We book floggers sat at tables and authgraphed our books as people bought them. It was terrific for me. I sold out and got more books from my car and sold some of them, too. Signing at WAF (as we moss-back Auduboners call it) was a life goal and now my bucket list is happily one item shorter.

But it got even better! On Sunday, I was at the same table as Portland deity and literary lodestone Ursula LeGuin. I have pictures! Well, truthfully, she had her own table because she has so many books, and one author was between us, but still! She is a faithful Audubon supporter and we all remember the sad year she had a bad cold during WAF and couldn't come. It is wonderful to see this smart, talented, aware old lady surrounded by The Dispossessed, Left Hand of Darkness, Searoad, Earthsea Trilogy, and all the other fine books she has written. And if you are a person who thinks she is a science fiction writer and a person who sniffs that they do not read science fiction, wake up and smell the coffee. Try Searoad if you can't bear fictional planets. Those short stories are set on the Oregon coast in very real sand and rain. If you are willing to cultivate a taste for speculative anthropology, go for The Dispossessed and/or Lathe of Heaven. If only I were the stylist she is... If only I had that imaginative vision...

Four days of setting up the event, selling books, volunteering, and helping to take the thing down and now I am lying about eating aspirin and taking naps. But I've got this picture, see, and it was so worth it.

That's her! I am in the background in the blue sweater. Between us is Paul Gerald, a very pleasant fellow, who wrote Breakfast in Bridge Town, about where to find a great breakfast in Portland.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Saving Orangutans and Much, Much More

I recently stumbled on a program that is simultaneously addressing health care for impoverished people, deforestation, global warming, and orangutan conservation. That’s quite a gift basket for a conservationist who also cares about social justice. Listen up!

In October, Dr. Kinari Webb gave a talk here in Portland, Oregon, about a health clinic she runs in Indonesia on the border of Gunung Palung National Park. This park is home to a healthy population of orangutans. In case you haven’t been watching this species, conservationists are predicting that we will see the extinction of wild orangs in the next decade or so as Indonesia de-forests and converts natural landscapes to palm plantations and other agriculture. This massive deforestation, incidentally, is a huge contributor to global warming.
(http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/17975, http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/05/14/1175)

A national park is a safe haven for wild animals, right? Not necessarily. Setting up a “paper park” is often a feel-good exercise in public relations. Who, exactly, is going to prevent illegal logging and other detrimental activities? An under-funded park service going against well-armed profiteers? It’s no surprise that logging within Gunung Palung has been a huge problem. And when the trees go, so do the orangs and a thousand other benefits of undisturbed forest.

Here is what Dr. Webb is doing. She runs a small clinic under a program called Health In Harmony. The clinic serves the 22 villages that ring the park. She delivers quality health care to very poor people on a tiny budget. Patients pay in cash if they can. If they don’t have cash, they are not turned away, but neither are services given for free. They pay with labor, manure for the organic garden, baskets, or other trade items.

But she goes beyond medical treatment. She links health care to the environment.
* Illegal logging—Health In Harmony offers health care incentives to villages who go “green.” The Park Bureau classes villages as “red” or “green” based on ground and aerial surveys. Red villages show evidence of illegal logging within the park near their boundaries. Green villages don’t. Green villages get mobile clinic visits, low-cost ambulance service, organic gardening training and additional discounts at the clinic.
* Organophosphate poisoning from ignorant and excessive use of pesticides—clinic staff teach organic farming and practice it at the clinic vegetable garden.
* Underemployment—Health in Harmony is researching options for a program that would pay locals to reforest the logged portions of the park.

One of the characteristics of Dr. Webb’s approach that impressed me the most is that she asks the local villagers and their leaders what their priorities are. Are they open to alternatives to illegal logging? (Yes. Logging is dangerous and poorly paid.) What extra services would they want in exchange for green certification? (They wanted a mobile clinic, supplemental ambulance service, and—surprise—training in organic farming.) She doesn’t hand out what we or she think these people need. She asks them and melds their answers into broader goals. Let me add, that the Indonesian Park Service has become an important partner, or none of this would be possible.

The more she said about her program, the more enthusiastic I got and I ended up writing a check for more money than perhaps I should have, but no regrets!

Check it out and see if you don’t find this a wise, compassionate, and effective approach to multiple environmental and health problems: http://www.healthinharmony.org/index.html And then send these people some money. They are doing work we desperately want done.

More sites with information about orangutans and Gunung Palung.

Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program: http://www.savegporangutans.org/
Gunung Palung Orangutan Project: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~gporang/index.html
Gunung Palung National Park: http://www.geocities.com/rainforest/4466/palung1.htm
Tim Laman Photos, Orangutans: http://www.timlaman.com/main.php
A map of the park: http://encarta.msn.com/map_701581664/gunung_palung_national_park.html

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Friday, October 31, 2008

A Big Cat is Not Your Buddy

Thursday night, October 30, a volunteer at a place called Safari's Wildlife Sanctuary in Oklahoma entered the enclosure of a liger while it was feeding. The liger (a cross between a lion and a tiger) attacked, and the man died the following day. This was an experienced volunteer who had also interned at Tulsa Zoo, so it is very hard to understand why he went into the cage. The behavior of the cat, sadly, is not so difficult to comprehend. Predation is what cats do. My heart goes out to the family and friends of Peter Getz and to the staff of the sanctuary.

There is no doubt that the people involved in this sanctuary want the very best for the animals, but that is not the same as providing safe and professional care. If this sounds harsh, visit the sanctuary's website: http://www.safarissanctuary.org/ The home page shows the president with a tiger on a leash. Look at the slide show of animal pictures for another example.

I've seen this at an animal sanctuary in southern Oregon, the trust people place in animals they can't really ever know. Is it because we think humans are outside the ordinary rules of animal behavior? Indeed we are, to a certain extent. But ask yourself why a powerful cat should treat a smaller primate (that would be us) with any particular respect? Why on earth should we assume they love us? Other species have their own agendas! They have their reasons,their bad days, their peeves. Nothing about a human obligates them to treat us tenderly any more than they would one of their own kind.

I understand the powerful impulse to touch, pet, and otherwise interact with beautiful, dangerous creatures. There's nothing like it. It's wonderful. But putting yourself at risk for this thrill is also putting the animal at risk. Even the people who blithely say there are worse ways to die (and some animal people do) surely understand that killing a person puts the animal in terrible peril.

I don't know exactly what happened with Peter Getz, and I am so sorry he died. The sanctuary he supported, though, deserves the scrutiny it will surely receive.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Get out of my crops! um, pots...

Fall has come and the squirrels have lost their tiny minds. Heedless of their own safety, they rummage all the live-long day in my yard, obsessed with burying peanuts, walnuts, acorns, whatever they think will get them through the winter. Hello? This is Portland, Oregon. If we get frost two nights running, we think we’re going to die. My neighbors put out corn cobs all year around. Hear me, squirrels, this is totally unnecessary. Get your little paws the hell out of my pots!

I love wildlife. Dealing with wildlife has been my profession, my hobby, my delight. I was a zookeeper for a dozen years! I write zoo mysteries! I donate to most of world’s conservation organizations! But those little bastards… No, steady there… Deep releasing breath…

The problem is I love plants, too. I grow many of them in pots because my soil is terrible. Pots have loose, luscious, eminently diggable soil. Perfect for marauding rodents to rummage through, killing trillium seedlings and delicate ferns and, horrors, my expensive, sensitive, any-excuse-to-die lady slipper orchids.

It seems that here in the middle of a big city in the United States, I share a problem with maize growers in Botswana and palm nut plantations in Borneo and foresters in Scotland. Wild animals trash the plants I have other plans for. My pain is far less than their pain because I’m not trying to feed a family or run a business based on my pots. I’m a hobbyist. But the conflict is not all that different.

What to do? The traditional solution is to kill the wildlife. But the elephants of Botswana and the orangutans of Borneo are in big trouble. (The red deer of Scotland are doing fine with careful management.) Those of us who love wildlife would like these distant people to use other solutions. Please, we ask, leave enough natural landscape for elephants and find non-lethal ways to deter them from trampling crops. Stop clearing rainforest so orangutans aren’t driven by starvation to the oil palms. Find ways to live with wildlife, cut back on transforming habitats for human purposes, “live lightly so that others may live.”

Easier said than done. Take those squirrels (please!). Mulching with flat stones helps (not practical for seedlings). Pepper flakes work until it rains—Portland, remember? I’ve barricaded my bird feeders. I’ll admit, when they uprooted the Goodyera oblongifolia for the third time, lethal control started to look good.

I sucked it up. Now my yard is adorned with chicken wire cages, caging out the varmints. Not pretty, but it works.

I don’t think it would work for Africa or Indonesia.

My hat is off to those conservationists who are out in the fields and plantations negotiating for wildlife, seeking ways that will feed the children without creating a world fit only for our kind (a sad and dangerous concept). This isn’t just an issue for distant lands. Here in Oregon, robins eat blueberries, coyotes eat lambs, and deer eat grape vines. I honor those farmers, orchardists, and foresters who sacrifice profits to maintain wild populations because they want to keep the rich biota we started with. I salute their efforts and do what I can to support them. Take a look around your community and see who deserves your support for holding the line against a humans-only landscape.

And send me any tips you have about curing obsessive squirrels.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Surviving Bouchercon

Here I am after my Bouchercon panel, hurling zoo animal cookies to the audience in my best herring-to-seals feeding style. Tom Schreck (TKO) moderated "I could have lied--Real life experiences". Julie Kramer (Stalking Susan) is on the left, Kit Ehrman (Triple Cross) is standing beside me. Andy Harp (Northern Thunder) is down in the audience out of sight. We put our heads together beforehand and agreed we wanted a fun, high-energy panel. Not hard with a a social worker/boxing judge (Tom), a TV journalist (Julie), a race horse expert (Kit), a Marine colonel (Andy), and a zookeeper (that would be me). The result was many truly terrible jokes, some interruptions, ancecdotes, and a lot of laughter. And then flying animal cookies. Oh, and I got back home to Portland to find that Night Kill made the September best-seller list from Independent Mystery Booksellers!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sign! Read! Par-TAY!

Night Kill has been released to the wild and I'm doing my best to see that it survives. Here I am at Seattle Mystery Bookstore on Saturday, September 27, 2008, with Twigga the giraffe, signing books. Lots of local relatives and friends dropped by, the staff are wonderful, and it was really fun. Take a look at the bookstore's blog: http://tinyurl.com/3r2tl7

Here's Murder by the Book in Portland the next day, Sunday September 28. This was a reading and I was nervous, but the store was packed with friends old and new and even a few strangers. I saw old friends from my zoo days, friends from many connections in Portland, and we sold all the books!

Then we went home and partied. Monday was a very slow day for this particular author.

Next up: Kate's Mystery Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. on Saturday, October 4, 4 PM.

Yee haw!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Awww.... A baby elephant is truly cute

I finally made it to Oregon Zoo today to see Rose-Tu's calf, me and a hundred or so other people at 3 PM on a hot Thursday. He looked strong and capable, considering his age, and Mom was calm and attentive. A staff person said that the other two young cows, Shine and Chendra, have met him and that everyone behaved well. The zoo has a nice blog about the scene: http://www.oregonzoo.org/Rose_Tu/updates.htm

I took lots of blurry pictures, once again losing any claim to photographic competence. He nursed, walked, and took a dump. At one point it was very clear that this is indeed a bull calf. I could have watched him for hours, but other people wanted my space to take their own blurry pictures.
With a little luck, the cows will have a wonderful time with this baby. Usually the closer a group is to a normal social structure for their species (which means some youngsters running around!), the happier they all seem. And of course the other cows will learn about mothering. I know from my own experience how stressful these events are for staff--you have your heart in your mouth for days--and I am delighted to see how well its going.

Interview with a Tiger

I've added a new page to http://annlittlewood.com, an interview with Rajah, who is featured in Night Kill. Take a look and let me know what you think. It was great fun hearing his perspective.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

New baby at Oregon Zoo!

After the moody post below, it's a pleasure to report Good News: Rose Tu gave birth today at the Oregon Zoo. http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2008/08/zoo_elephant_rosetu_begins_lab.html

It's her first calf and the other cows have little experience with new-borns, so there is still cause for worry. Take a look at that calf, though. What a great little guy!

This brings back memories of Honaka's two calves born at the Oregon Zoo when I was a keeper there. Those were very stressful births--each calf was born with ailments and their mom was excitable, to say the least. I (and lots of other staff) spent many hours in the barn and then at the nursery working with the calves. Alas, neither survived.

I wish Rose Tu and her baby all the luck in the world.

Have to have a habitat

Most of my energies have gone lately to promoting Night Kill, the first in the Iris Oakley "zoo-dunnit" series. I took a break and read The World without Us by Alan Weisman, a fascinating account of what might happen to plant Earth if we humans suddenly vanished. He works through what would soon return to natural conditions (and why that might not be what you expect, given invasive species and global warming) and what just won't. Oil refineries and nuclear power plants aren't going to be pretty for a long, long time. He describes human effects on air, water, and land in dismaying detail.

I also attended a ceremony today in Vancouver, Washington, opening one of the sites of the Confluence Project (http://www.confluenceproject.org/), public art along the Lewis & Clark trail. Sam Green, poet laureate of the state of Washington, read a poem titled What We Carry On The Trail that ends:

Like Lewis, like Clark, we have set our feet
on a bridge into the future, intending to arrive
with everything we've come to love--including
the brown pelican, Kincaid's lupine,
Fender's blue butterfly. We teach our children
each step is a name that matters.

We have traveled a long, long way & are traveling
still. We carry the cost of failure, the lengthening list
of what is gone already, of all that might be lost, knowing
what we have to do, believing that we will.

(quoted with permission http://www.arts.wa.gov/projects/poet-laureate.shtml)

Which all leads me to this question: don't we need a lot fewer of us, so that other lives can survive? Logic leads me toward an international one-child per woman strategy, despite the multitude of ugly issues around that. Not Chinese-style coercion, not just birth control for "those people", instead some undefined, improbable miracle of realization around the world that we will all live better with fewer of us. Mind you, I crave grandchildren and bore two children myself. I am aware of how very hard this is. What alternatives are there? Hint: it's not recycling plastic bags.

Let me know your thoughts.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Where I think this is going... Cows??

Here's your chance, folks, to set a new blogger straight. I envision this as an experiment in tying together the discoveries, delights, and dismay of publishing a new mystery (Night Kill), my environmental angst, and loosely related thoughts, events, and opinions. Where it gets trivial, I'll try for entertaining. Where it gets weighty, I'll still try for entertaining. Your part is to let me know when it works for you and when it doesn't. Arguing, supplementing, and cheering are also welcomed.


Last weekend, we (husband and myself) had the pleasure of visiting a friend's land, a new aquisition near Molalla, Oregon. We admired rolling hills of oak and fir, cattle up to their bellies in grass, a redtail hawk and turkey vultures circling overhead. During a walk through the property, I remembered a bit in a book by Temple Grandin, I think it was Animals in Translation, where she says that, if you lie down in a field, the cows will come up to you and maybe even lick your face. Of course we couldn't resist, so the three of us lay down in tall grass under trees, a few dozen yards from the cows (no bulls!).

My ass gradually got sodden, but otherwise it was about as bucolic as you can get, in the warm late afternoon. And sure enough, two of the cows succumbed to curiousity. They do not slip silently along (neither do deer, actually). They crashed on over and stood a few yards off, blowing sharp puffs through their big shiny noses. 514, per her ear tag, came to within five feet of me. I could hear her belly grumbling. She was a handsome lady, a black Angus with a shiny coat and a mellow eye.

I had two thoughts: one, that I wasn't up for face washing on our first date, and two, that this would be a highly inappropriate time for the cell phone in my pocket to ring. Which it immediately did. 514 and her buddy, 712, did not stampede and trample us. They barely flinched (modern cows!) and seemed to be wondering why it was taking me so long to answer the wretched thing. (I had a nice chat with our son in Boston.)

We roused after that and moved on, pleased with our experiment, and 712 and 514 resumed converting grass to beef.

Our management of cows often causes significant environmental damage as they trample creek banks, eat vegetation down to the ground, and generate massive amounts of manure in stockyards. Wildlife and native plants lose out big time in many cases. I didn't brood on that during my encounter with 514. She was in lush grass that can withstand grazing and our friend will fence his creek soon to create a riparian corridor. She was a fine beast on a beautiful afternoon and we both were simply curious and inclined to be well disposed toward one another.

Saturday, August 9, 2008