About this blog...

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

India moves zoo & circus elephants to forest camps

There's been a flurry of news about the Indian government's recent ruling that zoo and circus elephants will be moved to forest camps. Click here for the article.

Here's an interesting op-ed piece that addresses the concerns I had about how well thought out this was and why temple elephants were excluded, given that they live under worse conditions that zoo elephants (chained more hours, less contact with other elephants). Click here.

The circumstances for elephants in Indian zoos vary, but I believe it is safe to say that elephants in US zoos are far better off. Elephant management is receiving a lot of attention lately, with efforts toward providing them with more exercise and stimulation.

Oh, and the elephant researcher cited is Varma Surendra, not Verma. He was my roommate at the zoo keeper conference in Seattle recently, a charming fellow very committed to elephant well-being, both in captivity and in the wild.

Did Not Survive, the second in my zoo mystery series, explores issues around elephant management. Expect it in August 2010.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Macaws from Safari West. Picture by my sister, Nancy Parker.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Zebra picture

I've spent the day volunteering at the Portland Audubon Society annual Wild Arts Festival. Had a great time with old friends. We shopped and helped the many wonderful artists and chatted with customers. Now I'm too tired to write anything sensible, so here is a picture instead. This zebra lives at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.

Oh, one other thing...a big one! My publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, just officially accepted the next Iris Oakley zoo mystery. Did Not Survive is due out in August 2010. Christmas came early!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why murder?

At a dinner party tonight, somehow the subject of my zoo mystery series came up. (Somehow it always does, no matter how I try not to be, um, obsessive? pushy?). One of the guests looked at me with narrowed eyes and asked, "Why are you so fascinated with murder?" It took me aback. I think of myself as a writer of mysteries, not as a person obsessed with murder. So I said, cleverly, "I am not!"

So much for my keen wit and erudition. But the question did lead to a discussion about why it is I write a genre of fiction that requires an untimely death to kick off the story. Here's a metaphor. Mysteries are the cut-up chicken of fiction. (Hang in with me here.) A cook starts with a cut-up chicken and a big set of possibilities. Rules apply: the chicken has to be cooked--it cannot be served raw. It must not be charred to leather. It should be tasty. Within these rules, the cook can debone it or not; roast it, pot-roast it, fry it, stir-fry it, or stew it. The cook can go for curry, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Italian using any of a huge selection of sauces and spices to turn out a delicious entree. You see where I'm going with this.

Mysteries have their rules. Somebody dies and there is a puzzle to solve. The puzzle can be about who died, how they died, why they died, and who did it, or any selection of these. There should be suspects and motives, false starts and dangerous situations, surprising secrets, a clever protagonist and a determined antagonist. Most mysteries have these elements.

But the results are highly varied, from police procedurals to village mysteries to mystery/thriller hybrids. And--here's the great part--the setting and characters can be anybody, anywhere. Italian, French, Indian, Swedish, in towns, cities, wilderness, on ships or islands or Indian reservations. The protagonists can be racehorse jockeys, Australian flappers, private detectives, sheriffs, big-city cops, princesses, and on and on.

This combination of structure and freedom felt comfortable to me. I liked knowing what the rules were and having the choice to follow them or to try something different. I knew it would be fun build crime stories that included animals, issues between people and animals, and zoos.

So it's not about murder. It's about how people fall into crime and how their secrets are found out. It's about bravery and cowardice, investigation and hiding.

It's really about Congo peacocks--whole, raw, and alive.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ruppell's Griffon Vulture

Here's a photo from the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, a Ruppell's Griffon Vulture.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

More on Mexico and Animals

I live in inner Portland, Oregon, in a beautiful older neighborhood with maple and chestnut trees arching across the streets. When I walk, often alone at night, I encounter neighbors walking their dogs on leashes. Cats come up to me to complain that their humans never, ever pet them and that they need a little head rub right now. I see a loose dog perhaps once a year, a guilty-looking escapee. Some of the dogs get to romp at a dog park with other dogs. The rare un-neutered male dog is always a purebred. People argue whether duck-and-potato dog food is better than lamb-and-rice.

Mexico pops my rosy little bubble, as did Cambodia and Thailand. The Mexican neighborhood where my father-in-law lived is on the periphery of the middle-class city of San Miguel de Allende. Only recently have some of the streets been paved. Little brick houses with corrugated metal roofs nestle up to beautiful haciendas built by foreigners. Street dogs run loose, except for the few that are still kept as "roof dogs", stranded on the roof to bark at intruders. If cats live here, they are invisible.

The street dogs are un-neutered, dirty, and sometimes injured. Some are wary of people. They are also alert and busy, interacting with each other, playing, arguing, mating, searching for food, roaming free. I suspect they lead the very same life that dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. It's impossible to imagine them as child-substitutes or adornments or status symbols. They are Dogs, capital D. For the most part, they don't even seem to be companions to people. They have all that freedom, but none of the care that I and my neighbors consider essential to a dog's well being. They probably don't live very long.

No burros on this trip, no dawn serenade of hee-haws, and only a few distant roosters to fill the gap. A filly grazed while tied to a tree down the street, a long-horned cow roamed at the upper end. During the Monday market that lines both sides of the street, a woman sold used clothing and wild birds. The top two looked like house finches. I couldn't identify the one on the bottom.

This Mexican neighborhood is being gentrified and beautified. Eventually, when the recession passes, the rest of the streets will be paved and construction of nice little houses and big gorgeous mansions will begin again. The street market may or may not endure, but the livestock will probably move on. If I return in a few years, perhaps the street dogs will be gone and I'll see only dogs on leashes. But no matter the how much the neighborhood upgrades, I doubt people will be prepared to discuss the merits of duck-and-potato dog food.

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Mexican circus

My husband and I were touristing diligently in downtown San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, shopping for trinkets in one of the many lovely little stores, when he said, "Ann, there's a zebra outside." After more than a second or two for me to parse this, I realized I should actually take a look. And there it was. The circus had come to town.

Advertising the performance, truck after truck loaded with animals navigated the narrow streets, loudspeaker blaring. This seemed to be a fairly large circus with a lot of animals. I trotted after and took these photos. My husband saw more than I did and said they had many big cats. He took this photo as the trucks moved on.

Later I mentioned the parade to an American friend who lives in SMA, as we in the know call it. (I can pretend I'm in the know!) She said that "Mexican circuses are rough. I wouldn't go if I were you." I had no intention of going, no interest in supporting this business. That is all I can report on the performance.

We encountered the circus again later, on the way back from the wonderful Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden. The tent was set up and the animals were unloaded. I can only say that they were not thin and they had fresh hay and no visible injuries. I did not see the cats close up. I was very surprised to see four young giraffes. As far as I know, the collection did not include any elephants.

San Miguel is a small and somewhat isolated town. There's not a lot for young people to do there. No doubt the circus will be popular.

My guess is that those animals would be happy to trade life in a zoo for this one of constant travel and whatever performances are required of them. If you have the stomach for it, read the first part of A Different Nature by David Hancocks for horrific descriptions of human exploitation of animals for entertainment. The ancient Romans locally exterminated many African species for wholesale slaughter in the coliseums. Put me off my feed for a week. We limp slowly toward a more respectful relationship with our fellow species, with many detours.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Adios, Mexico

I returned a few weeks ago from a week in Mexico, in the determinedly historic town of San Miguel de Allende. Ever alert to the ways people interact with animals, I found several striking examples, among them the local street dogs, a circus, and a street vendor selling wild birds. We stumbled on an Indian parade down the middle of town that I watched for close to an hour. Men and boys danced in costumes of leather, furs, horns, and feathers to drums. It seemed that the participants danced to celebrate their customs and history and wore costumes appropriate to that. Alas, I know nothing of which tribes were represented or how Native American cultures function in the area.

I've been reading Animal Investigators by Laurel A. Neme about identifying illegal wildlife parts. Here is an example of the National Fish & Wildlife's beautiful site used to identify feathers. So as I watched the parade, I was especially interested in the feathered headdresses.

Reading a single book, sadly, does not make one an expert on identifying the birds from which the feathers came, and feathers are often dyed and shaped for effect. So I won't attempt that. The costumes were constructed with great care and no little artistry. The headdresses were striking and beautiful. I will say, however, that I was startled to see an entire stuffed owl, possibly a screech owl, on a headdress. And of course I wondered if endangered parrots were the source of any of the brighter headgear.

I'm not going to sermonize about killing birds for feathers to adorn themselves. Mexico has its own laws, and indigenous people have their own customs and, in some cases, special rights. Decorating with feathers is a custom, tradition, and pleasure that has existed at least as long as humanity. Readers of this blog should know where I stand on exploiting wildlife populations and I'll leave it at that. More on the circus later.

I'm interested in hearing from people who know something about these tribes and their cultures, as well as from any feather experts who would like to chime in.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

On Thursday, October 15, bloggers all over the world are writing about climate change and its affect on different parts of our lives--food, politics, art, and so on. No surprise, I will write a bit about the consequences for wildlife and their habitat. I am in Mexico at the moment, working on a steam-powered computer and a vintage browser, so please forgive my lack of links to references.

I've heard debates about global warming for what? ten years?, but all the doubts that it was happening never made sense to me. I read Natural History magazine and other bits and pieces of science news. The botanists have known for quite a long time that the climate is changing. Spring comes earlier in the northern hemisphere--the plants wake up sooner. The birders and ornithologists knew it also--migratory birds return earlier. So it is not news to anyone paying attention that the natural world is changing rapidly due to climate change. Today, the die-hards either say it's natural and not our fault, or else that we can't do anything about it. Neither is true. How can we radically alter the gas ratios in the Earth's atmosphere and not expect consequences? And if we can make these changes, surely we can unmake them.

Here's a few examples of what a hotter world looks like. Trees are dying in western forests from multiple causes, among them hotter summers with less water. My guess is that different species of trees or shrubs will take their place. The birds, insects, reptiles, mammals, etc. will change accordingly. The flexible ones will remain (raccoons, deer) and the ones that are finely attuned to one ecosystem will perish or (optimistically) follow it to new locations. Glaciers are melting faster than they are being replaced. The western US, mostly arid to begin with, will become drier in summer as the streams and springs fail from lack of snowmelt. Lack of snow cover in the winter will affect many species of plants. They are vulnerable to freezing and dehydration when the ground they are dormant beneath is bare.

Enough of the bad news. The point is not to sink into depression, but to be further spurred to action. For the sake of the birds at your feeder, the deer you see on your camping trip, the frog your kid caught on the farm, start doing what you can. You know the drill: drive less, buy less, eat locally grown food, and, most especially, let your senator, representative, mayor, state senator, governor, etc., know that this is a top priority for you. Put their phone numbers into your cell phone or post them next to the land line and start calling.

Tell them you know it's going to cost extra to fix this and you are willing to pay more for utilities that use green power, for public transportation, for investments that reduce use of coal and oil. Tell them that, yes, you get it, reducing our carbon footprint is going to be hard on the economy. Tell them to do it anyway. What do you think our economy is going to look like if we don't get a handle on this?

Do what you can. That's all any of us can do. Each day or week or month, try to add one more change to your life, one more email or phone call, one more adjustment that helps reduce your impact. That's what we gotta to do. And then look up from the bad news and enjoy the wonderful world we inherited.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A lion placeholder

I won't be available to blog for a week, so here is a fine picture of a lion taken by my sister, Nancy Parker, to assuage my conscience. He lives at the National Zoo.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Today's quote

Stumbled across this old favorite while (whilst?) looking for something else.

"Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself to do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done whether you like it or not. It is the first lesson that ought to be learned and however early a person's training begins, it is probably the last lesson a person learns thoroughly."

Thomas Huxley

Friday, October 2, 2009

Visit to Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Here's a few photos from Woodland Park Zoo. Nice visit during the AAZK conference. Makes me realize again how tricky it is to design an exhibit for photography.

This exhibit works for the camera! Looks like I stumbled on that bear in the Olympics.

Shot the jag through thick glass, which worked pretty well. I suspect a heater under those rocks.

Barred owl. Perfect conditions--no bars or mesh, no glass, up close. Now I have no excuses for my mediocre photography!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Zookeeper Lingo

I'm back from the AAZK/ICZ conference in Seattle. That would be American Association of Zoo Keepers and International Congress on Zookeeping, 400 attendees in all. I met people from England (breakfast with the director of Chester Zoo!), The Philippines, India, New Zealand, Australia, and several other countries as well. We heard a boatload of presentations on animal husbandry, as you might expect, but also many on conservation. The International Rhino Foundation and Lewa Rhino Sanctuary were especially impressive. Take a look and send them money. They will use it to keep rhinos alive, not an easy task with poaching at a 15 year high.

Writers love language and I love professional jargon. Here's a few terms used in this profession.

Enrichment (noun): Has nothing to do with money. It refers to enhancing an animal's environment through various kinds of stimuli--entertainment, if you will. This can include training, toys, food treats, smells, social opportunities, and so on. Avoids boredom, encourages natural behavior, stimulates exercise.

Jackpotting (verb): A training technique. When the animal does something brilliant (that the trainer approves of!), the trainer jackpots the animal--a big ol' reward, more than the usual treat.

Howdy (verb or adjective): The process of introducing animals through mesh, for example, putting a new monkey into a "howdy cage" inside the exhibit. Everybody gets to sniff and see each other, nobody gets hurt. Once everyone calms down about the whole idea of a newbie, the new animal is released into the enclosure, with less chance of aggression from the residents. Other usage: "We howdied her for two weeks and then the introduction went fine."

Camera trap: A motion-sensitive camera used to find out what's out there in the wild. We saw the classic video: a rhino in a swamp with her half-grown kid. Mom hears the camera. Sniffs, listens, sniffs, thinks very hard, and then does what rhinos do. Blam! Cut to gray.

Last tidbit for this post--a couple of guys with AAZK tee shirts. On the back, the slogan "If I die before I wake, feed me out." You can interpret that on your own...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Voices, I hear voices...

Here's another blog I wrote for On Wings of Murder about choosing the voice for a story, why the Iris Oakley zoo-dunnits are in first person. Enjoy!


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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

War Stories of the Big Cat Variety: Part 2

Here's Part 2 of my guest blog for On Wings of Murder about raising a lion and tiger cub.

(Contest is open until September 30.)


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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

War Stories of the Big Cat Variety: Part 1

Here's a post I wrote for On Wings of Murder, about the origins of Rajah the tiger in Night Kill.


The contest to win a free copy of NIGHT KILL is extended until September 30. Read the post for rules.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Hint Fiction

Now back to the writing thread of this blog...

I've been reading about "hint fiction" which is like Twitter, only not so long-winded. Hint fiction is limited to 25 words plus the title. I'm giving a hint fiction contest a whirl. Here's the link if you want to try your luck: http://www.robertswartwood.com/?page_id=8

Monday, August 3, 2009

Zoos then and now

Hey, I'm a guest blogger on On Wings of Murder! But a glitch in the process meant I wasn't notified when the posts went up, so I'm repeating them here. Be sure to catch the contest!

Maybe there’s an occupation or a work scene that doesn’t change over the decades, but zoos aren’t it. My zookeeper years straddled the mid 1970s to the late 1980s. With NIGHT KILL, the first of the Iris Oakley “zoodunnits”, set in current time, I knew I would have one foot in the zoo world I worked in for twelve years and the other in the world of today’s zoos. I made sure that fictional Finley Memorial Zoo, where Iris works, is small and poor and thus a lot more like the old zoos I knew. But to be fair to modern zoos (and because it’s fun), little Finley Zoo got a bond measure passed and is upgrading as fast as it can go.

When I started at what is now called the Oregon Zoo, farm and circus methods of handling animals influenced how zoos managed animals. Zookeeping was almost exclusively a male profession. The older exhibits were designed primarily for safety and cleanliness. Zoos focused on breeding animals because taking them from the wild was no longer acceptable. Zoo staff and anyone else paying attention to the natural world were deeply concerned about dwindling wild populations of many species, especially in Africa and Asia.

Some of this has changed, some has not.

Bronx zoo tiger training

Modern training methods are a wonderful tool for moving animals to where you want them and for getting them to tolerate examinations and medical treatments. I left the zoo world when these techniques were just starting to be adopted, and I’m sorry I missed this huge shift. What B.F. Skinner started, the marine mammals trainers and others developed until today we can interact with wild animals in ways that that are calm, cooperative, and mutually beneficial.

Harbor seal trained for weighingHarbor seal trained for weighing.

Training requires skill and time, but it has taken much of the drama out of animal handling. Force and fear-based methods now must be justified by unpredictable emergencies. Otherwise, they are mostly failures to train properly.

At the same time as “husbandry training” was adopted, zookeeping shifted from almost entirely men to over fifty percent women. As a result, keepers and their managers redesigned jobs to require less muscle and to accommodate pregnancy and nursing. I suspect issues still remain, but it’s not a matter of breaking trail any more. I need to add that the male zookeepers at Oregon Zoo were very supportive of me as I participated in that transition.

Ann, Back in the day with Sand CatAnn, Back in the day with Sand Cat

Back in the day, I weighed 112 pounds and compounded my physical inadequacies by two pregnancies. None of the men gave me a hard time for not being up to the job. Their tolerance was only partly because some of them couldn’t toss heavy bales off the hay truck either, due to allergies. We figured out how to get the work done safely and equitably.

Gorilla exhibit at the Bronx ZooGorilla exhibit at Bronx Zoo.

Today, zoo exhibits are still designed for safety and ease of cleaning, but many other design requirements come into play. It’s assumed that animals must have the opportunity to behave the way they would in the wild, as much as possible. Pigs like to dig—they need dirt or sand. Gibbons live high in the treetops—they need tall, long exhibits for brachiating. Plus, the housing should offer opportunities to show visitors what the natural environment looks like and signs to explain why particular animals choose to live there. Bigger exhibits may or may not be better, but more complex seems to suit a lot of creatures. Ponds, sand pits, trees to climb on… take a look next time you are at the zoo and see what’s been provided. And please forgive the trashy-looking buckets, balls, and cardboard boxes in the exhibits. Keepers want to see animals mentally and physically stimulated and it’s not easy to come up with safe toys. Sometimes esthetics suffer.

As for breeding, I was there at the right time. Babies were welcomed almost universally. Mandrill monkeys, chimpanzees, elephants, and other animals seemed engaged, busy, and relaxed when they had babies to raise. Abnormal behaviors dropped out as parents focused on their young. The public loved it and so did the staff. Today, it’s not so loose. Stud books and Species Survival Plans ensure that only unrelated animals are bred, so that genetic diversity is maximized. Other factors restricting breeding are the availability of good zoo homes for the offspring and keeping a good age mix. Keepers use great creativity in finding other ways to keep their charges occupied.

Concerns about the status of animals in the wild has changed since my zoo days—it’s gotten worse. The situation for a long list of creatures is increasingly dire as humans consume more and more of the earth’s resources. We aren’t leaving much for our companions on this little planet. Whether zoos are doing all they can to turn this around is hotly debated, both within and outside of the zoo world. It’s a good discussion to have, but keep in mind that zoos are trivial endeavors compared to other human activities that affect wildlife.

I hope this little bit of history helps you enjoy your next zoo visit. Slow down, spend an extra minute or two at each exhibit. Every animal has its story, its personality, its routine. See how much you can catch.

Drop me a comment about your favorite zoo experience.

Enter the Zoo Contest to win a free copy of NIGHT KILL!
Send me an email with Contest in the subject line. In the body of the email, tell me your favorite wild animal and the reason why. Entries will be entered into a random drawing. Contest closes August 27, 2009. The email address is

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What's new?

It's high time to break radio silence and provide a little update on my recent activities. Mostly I've been pedal-to-the-metal on zoo-dunnit #2 of the Iris Oakely series. This sequel to Night Kill is tentatively titled Did Not Survive, DNS to its friends. This mystery features elephants and the issues around their captive management, as well as a little bit about management of wild elephants. The previous mystery #2, focused on orangutans, is now in #3 position due to tedious circumstances which I will spare you. So, yes, folks, I've been outlining and drafting and revising my little heart out.

But I haven't been too busy to visit a few zoos. Here's an Eagle Owl from Oregon Zoo.

And here's a picture of Samudra, "our" baby elephant. Notice that Mom (Rose-Tu) is picking up his foot. She did that several times. Perhaps she has her own training program for her little guy and the keepers' training is just a supplement? Here's more information about Sam and his progress: http://www.oregonzoo.org/Samudra/index.htm

Enough fun with pictures! Back to the wonderful world of revisions.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Renewal, durability, adaptation

It's a late spring this year here in Portland, Oregon. We had sleet yesterday and expect frost again tonight. Nonetheless, green tips are poking up and now and then a song sparrow gets ahead of himself and hollers for love and territory. It's hard to be optimistic during our cold gray winters, easier now that the days are longer. I'm moved to show you a poem of hope, about how our fellow denizens can sometimes find ways to live with us without our encouragement or even awareness.

Let me know what you think.


Rabbits gone now, coyotes batten on dachshunds and cats
Nurtured in houses colonizing scalped hills.
How to explain these night nests of peculiar apes,
Proliferating absurdly, linked by hard black trails?

Inexplicable fauna, we trot down into gaping crevices
Where shrieking boxes halt and accept us.
Below the grimy platform, safe beside the third rail,
Flit grimy mice, salvaging hot dog scraps.

Twenty years ago Chernobyl slipped in our hand
And, bloodied, we dropped it and left.
Now black storks clack in the young forest
And half-poisoned wolves play with their cubs.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Podcast--The Apprentice Assassin

A radio station in Northampton, Mass., broadcast a short story of mine today. No zoo or animals in this one. Instead, it's from my "women victorious" series of wish fulfillments.

Take a listen if you wish: http://tinyurl.com/cct8on

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A fortress for native wildlife

I blogged about New Zealand last time and I'd like to add a bit more before moving on. I've lived almost my entire life in the American West and I've been a conservationist/ environmentalist/ dirt-worshiping tree-hugger pretty much since middle school, which was a long time ago. Here in the western US, the modern history of the interaction between humans and wildlife has "predator control" as a major theme. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold talks about our success in extirpating wolves from the west with traps, poison, and shooting. We tried, and still try, to do that with coyotes, but they are far better at surviving our efforts. The consequences of our war on canid and other predators includes poisoned domestic animals, non-target wild animals, and humans. Livestock may benefit, but native grazers and browsers such as deer and elk do not necessarily benefit. In addition, fur bearing predators are trapped for market. Many consider leg-hold traps to be inhumane. All in all, your average wildlife advocate in the US is not likely to be a fan of either poisons or traps.

Not so in New Zealand. Major attitude adjustment required! New Zealand was devoid of mammals until we got there. OK, there were two species of bats and a seal, but that was about it until people deposited rats, cats, weasels, stoats, more rats, deer, chamois (!), goats, pigs, and on and on. The consequences to the native birds, who were often ground-nesters and otherwise inadequate to the challenge, are all too predictable. (Some of the native birds seem to fly like bricks--great hearty flapping turns out to be a jay-sized tui or saddleback, not the wounded condor it sounds like.)

So let's say you want to set up reserves for native wildlife, which, bless their enlightened hearts, those New Zealanders have done. The requirements are that you have some habitat (see previous blog) and that you get rid of the introduced predators. The photo at the top of this post shows the incredible fence at Kaori Sanctuary near Wellington. It is designed to keep out mammals as small as juvenile mice, burrowing pigs, jumping deer, climbing cats, and everything else. The reserve is encircled by this fence (you can see it on Google Earth). That is Step 1 and now here we are at Step 2, traps and poisons. Once the space inside the fence is cleansed of mammals, then tuatara, saddlebacks, and other wildlife can be released with a reasonable hope of survival. But it doesn't end there. The price of survival is eternal vigilance. A staff person said that if the fence is breached (such as a tree falling on it), the likelihood of a predator (feral house cat, rat, stoat) entering the sanctuary is about 80-90% in 24 hours. That is some pressure. So the staff have little boxes everywhere with bait in them to collect tracks. That way, they can tell what's gotten in and deal with it.

Mt Arthur on the South Island isn't fenced. I stood in one spot and rotated, taking pictures of different kinds of traps for different kinds of mammals. The reward for all this control was two wekas wandering around the trails, among a lot of other very cool birds.

Our relatives have kiwis on their property, far north on the North Island. The local trapper/poisoner keeps the Brush-tailed possum population low so that tree ferns and kiwis can survive.

I'm still getting adjusted to two realities: that wildlife can depend so utterly on our efforts and that our least-liked tools may be essential for the job.

Your thoughts? I would especially love to hear comments from people who know more about New Zealand conservation than I do.

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

A world safe for sheep

We returned a month ago from three wonderful weeks in New Zealand. We have pictures of hospitable, charming, generous friends and relatives in Wellington, Nelson, and Whangarei. We have photos showing us putting on sunscreen for Christmas dinner outside on the deck. Meanwhile, our house was buried in more snow than Portland, OR, has seen for years. It was great to be gone! But the point of this post has more to do with yet another lesson in what our human selves are capable of.

We drove (were driven, actually) almost the full length of the North Island. It was beautiful--green rolling hills, snow-capped mountains in the distance. Lovely lush pasture full of healthy-looking sheep, 40 million of them, I'm told.

But Jared Diamond talks about "landscape amnesia" that we suffer from, and so I asked around and read a bit about from whence cometh this sheep paradise. What was it like before it got all bucolic and full of livestock?

It was forest, is what it was. New Zealanders traded a depth of up to 50 meters of forest for 12 inches of grass.

New Zealand was one of the last land masses to be discovered. It didn't see much of us humans until sometime between 1150 AD and 1350 AD when the Maoris arrived. Europeans arrived in the 18th century and now it is is home to about 4 million people. People did what we generally do: cut and/or burned the trees down and converted the forest to farmland and pasture. The Maoris got it started and the Europeans accelerated the process considerably. The country went from 85% forest cover to about 23% today.

The consequences to the native wildlife are no surprise, with all 11 species of moa being only some of the extinctions.

Now this is not a cheerful realization. Forests change climate--what happened with that? Erosion is sending fertility into the oceans, which helps neither land nor sea. And give a thought to the amount of carbon that is no longer sequestered in the 17 million hectares stripped of forest.

If sheep farming becomes unprofitable fast enough, perhaps New Zealand can sell carbon credits for reforesting instead. (Note to self: investigate this fantasy).

I'd like to send a thank-you note to the New Zealanders who fought to save their remaining forests from the chainsaws. Go to the South Island to see the huge reserves there. And another one to the volunteers and staff of the various reserves we visited. The impression I have is that when government agencies and non-profits decide to establish a reserve, they know what they are doing (and they have the climate on their side). One example--Tiritiri Mantengi Island was a sheep farm for 120 years, with an old tree left here and there, 94% deforested. When the decision was made to turn it into a wildlife reserve, the sheep were removed, the rats poisoned, and volunteers planted over 250,000 native trees. That was in 1984-1994. The results are amazing. I am not a biologist and can't say how completely an ecosystem has been recreated, but it certainly looks like a forest, and it is full of native birds who are breeding. I don't think you could get that kind of recovery in just 25-35 years in a temperate climate such as I live in. More like 80 years, maybe.

Dr. Doug Talmany says that we tend to think, as we build houses on farm land, replace native vegetation with exotics, and let our garden sprays drain into the river, that "nature is happy somewhere else". Well, nature isn't happy much of anywhere these days. New Zealand was a lesson that we individually, pursuing our personal well being, can destroy an enormous swath of ecosystem. It also demonstrated how we can, with great effort and at considerable cost, restore what we destroyed.

I would love to hear from others who have visited this wonderful country and/or who know more than I do about its ecology and history. Add a comment below!

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