About this blog...

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

Miscellaneous Good Things

It's been a week of good tidings and joy.

* Got a swell review on Shelf Awareness recommending Did Not Survive for holiday shopping. (Scroll way down to Gift Book Roundup.) DNS has had a zillion online reviews (Thank you, dear publicist Maryglenn McCombs!), but this one kicked off more emails to me than any other, ever.

* I'm in my pjs and Murphy-dog is in my lap in this fun guest blog on Marshal Zeringue's site Coffee with a Canine. I'm thinking every author needs a really cute dog.

* This nice review came in from Mystery Mavens Blog.

* Marian Allen gave this blog an award from her blog. Click here for hers.

* AND: our son is arriving tomorrow for the holidays, all the packages are in the mail, and the summary of Zoo Mystery #3 is done for the moment! Let the wild revels begin!

I'm always dressed for Christmas!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Human mind/canine mind: just a cute dog story

Murphy is a small, hairy dog with a lot of positive energy. He's good at his guard duties (squirrels, people on the front porch) and friendly otherwise. He's quit chewing up our stuff, and he does tricks. A little dog of many virtues. But being whip-smart was never one of them. "Trainable, but hardly brilliant" is what I've always thought. Turns out he has the same impression of me.

This morning, I was in the bathroom getting my vitamins when he barged in. This is unusual--he's not a morning creature any more than I am. But here he was, full of energy. And he did that "follow me!" thing of wagging his tail while looking over his shoulder at me. I followed him to the dining room. Yesterday, I'd sat on the floor and petted him as we both woke up. I don't usually do that, and I figured he liked it and wanted more of the same. So that's what we did.

A bit later, I was eating breakfast in the dining room and he stood by, staring at the table. So I petted him a little. Then he put both front paws on the empty seat next to me and stared at the table. "Bad dog," I said mildly, and he got down, still staring.

Finally I got it--a little pile of liver bits sat on the table, left over from training last night. He'd spotted or smelled them this morning and, rather than putting his forefeet up on the chair and lunging for it, he'd gone to get me to do it right. He's more of a Good Dog than I realized! And I am presumably a lot dimmer than he realized.

So we played Find, which is a game that consists of "sit/stay" while I sprinkle liver bits all over the house, a game that cannot be played too often in Murphy's mind. I said "Find!" and he raced off to scarf them up.

I blew the morning's Sudoku as well.

Mutual respect? I can only hope.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Portland: Holiday party at Murder by the Book

Join me and other authors for holiday fun of the murderous sort on Sunday, December 12, at 2 PM, at Murder by the Book on Hawthorne.

Here's the scoop!

The Caribou of Christmas

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: Naming Nature, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (2009) is about taxonomy, and kudos to Carol Kaesuk Yoon for tackling the subject with vigor. She sets up contrast between folk taxonomy, finding consistency across a variety of cultures, and compares that with modern scientific taxonomy. This structure is creaky and she overuses certain tropes, especially "the end of fish," but she also provides a tidy history of taxonomy. (Fish aren't really gone, of course. It's just that "fish" fails as a taxon using modern classification.)

She takes us to folk/cultural taxonomy, Linaneus's breakthrough of binomial nomenclature, and the uproar caused by cladists and their DNA analysis.

Those who can tolerate a rather over-amped emphasis on contrasting everyday classification of plants and animals (weeds, pets, fish)with scientific classifications will find many cool ideas about ordering the natural world. For example, certain specific brain lesions impair the ability to identify living things, while the ability to label non-living things remains intact. We are instinctive taxonomists, she proposes, and then asserts that science wrenches this innate sense of the world away from us.

She makes the case that we can no longer understand the natural world without field guides, without interpretation, when we once trusted our own experience. Yoon seems convinced that a layer of science between perception and understanding is a bad thing. She makes a useful, if unsurprising, point that "species" are human categories--nature is not tidy or static, and the scientific definitions fail here and there. She points out that we must live with both viewpoints at the same time--our innate perceptions and the scientific one. For example, dividing human beings into races fails--the boundaries are vague and inconsistent--yet race is a reality of our lives.

The history of science is the history of individuals promoting and resisting change and taxonomy is no different. The low opinion of taxonomists held by other scientists, the deep rifts within the taxonomic community, and the triumph of taxonomy by DNA make for fascinating reading.

Yoon says that we need the experiences in nature to build a personal taxonomy and we need to trust that organization for our own mental health. I wasn't convinced, but I found the history fascinating and recommend the book for that. I have to add, however, that Science (with a capital S) is not well respected in this country. Intuition and emotion seem to carry more credence. Worse, "facts" are often derided as joyless and dull and "experts" as limited know-nothings. My experience (bias?) is that harnessing emotion to the best information available produces far better results on average than simply going with gut feelings. Judging by Naming Nature, Yoon would disagree.

I swim, therefore I am.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Holiday Hippo

I shared my October signing at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Phoenix with the African writing team Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip). They created the excellent Inspector Kubu mysteries set in Botswana. These guys not only have cool South African accents, they have merch! I won a swell hippo tee shirt in the drawing they held. Yeah, I know, I probably shoulda let someone else have it, but there it was and I won and it is very cool and I do love hippos so... See below.

And you can have one your very own self by clicking here.

Kubwa Sana, a hippo I helped hand raise

Can't have too many hippo pictures. This is Snorkle, an elderly lady at Auckland Zoo with her not-at-all-elderly keeper.

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.


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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

MS Word for Authors: Buried secrets of Find and Replace

MS Word's Find and Replace is a feature probably very familiar to you. When "Amanda" must become "Bobbie Sue", you probably use Ctrl+H (or Apple + shift+H) or the Edit menu to open up the dialog box and get Word to do the swap for you.

In case you haven't stumbled on this yet, it's perfectly valid to "Find" something and "Replace with" nothing. Word interprets as "find it and delete it".

Another tip: To eliminate those old-fashioned double spaces after periods, enter two spaces in the "Find" box, which will be invisible, and one space in the "Replace with" box, also invisible. Click "Replace All" and the double spaces will be changed to single spaces. Click "Replace All" again in case you put a few triple spaces in there also.

For additional thrills with Find and Replace, click the little "More" button (PC). On a Mac, look for a tiny down arrow in the lower left corner. Run through that list of options for finding and replacing. "Find whole words only" is handy, especially if you are replacing a short word, if, for example, "son" is to become "daughter." Check this box or "Hudson" can become "Huddaughter," which will mystify you when you are editing text a week later!

Still at the dialog box, click on Format and review that list, too. One example: you can search for a particular font and replace it. This is useful if you've changed the manuscript from, say, Courier New to Times New Roman, and you suspect that some of the New Courier is still lurking in the document. It's easy to set up the Find and Replace--Click in "Find what", select Courier New, then click in "Replace with" and select Times New Roman. The font names display under the boxes, which should be empty since you are not searching on specific words. Click "Replace All" and rest easy that the inappropriate font is now banished. (Click "No Formatting" to get rid of this before you start a new test.)

Explore other options hidden behind that Format button. You can, for example, replace one style with another.

One more tip: This time, click on Special, which is next to Format. This is a very cool feature: you can Find and Replace double hyphens with the classier em dashes, get rid of tabs after you set Normal style to indent five spaces automatically, and perform other formatting gymnastics (with caution, please!).

Open a test document, perhaps a copy of your ms. (clearly named "Test"!) and play around.

Hunt and peck. Isn't that the same as find and replace?

Friday, October 29, 2010

A visit to Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Arizona

After Bouchercon, I flew to Arizona for a 3-signing book tour and took in 3 zoos. Here's a few shots from Reid Park Zoo in Tucson and A LINK HERE to see the full slide show.

Giant anteater. Reid Park manages the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for this species.

African elephant working for her lunch, a good stretch!

African crowned crane lounging in a pond.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bouchercon Bits

I put on my best elephant earrings and hopped a plane for Bouchercon 2010 San Francisco, which ran from Thursday, 10/14 to Sunday 10/17. I was caught up immediately afterward in the Arizona book tour for Did Not Survive, but the SF memories are still vivid. I tend to get overwhelmed by Bouchercon (this was my third), but this time I had Angie as a buddy. She's a pre-published member of my writing group and great company. You'll be hearing more about her mysteries! Another member, Doug Levin, hit the ground running--we saw only glimpses as he hobnobbed with one author or mystery fan or another.

Meeting and greeting, panels and parties--I tried it all. My panel was at 10 AM Thursday, the first day of the conference. About 45 people showed up, which was 40 more than I expected, and we had a good time. Avery Aames did a great job as moderator. Mysteries featuring race horses, fancy cheese, stray frogs, wacky actors, and (of course) elephants made for a lively panel.

I especially liked the panel of international writers and that leads to a couple of mysteries to recommend to you.

The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu by "Michael Stanley"--Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. These are a couple of South Africans who were on the panel and who write a nice series starring Kubu, a Botswana police officer with a hearty appetite. Kubu is a nickname, meaning "hippo." (I once raised a baby hippo named "Kubwa Sana" so of course I have a warm spot for the name.) Botswana seems to be fertile ground for novelists and I enjoyed the characters and plot as well as the setting.

The Risk of Infidelity Index by Christopher G. Moore. Moore is a Canadian living in Thailand and a keen observer of his adopted country as well as his fellow ex-pats. His series is labeled "noir" but I did not find this one particularly dark or grim. I envy his ability to construct a complex plot that holds together and appreciate his way with characters.

Barbara Corrado Pope wasn't on this panel, but she writes a foreign series so I'm adding her to the list. Cezanne's Quarry is a tour of 19th century Italy with a young magistrate as our guide through a complex social and emotional landscape that includes the artist Paul Cezanne as a suspect. Besides, Barbara found a great little tapas restaurant in a San Francisco alley where she and I and Angie ate and drank and talked until it got dark. But, really, it's a fine book!

It wasn't all panels and smoozing. There were free drinks, too, thanks to Lee Child and Poisoned Pen Press. Sometime maybe I'll blog about disco dancing. Picture me doing the Village People's "YMCA". Or not...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bouchercon followup

So I'm at the airport, waiting to fly from San Francisco to Phoenix on a book tour set up to follow Bouchercon, the big mystery conference. I spent 3 1/2 days hanging out in San Francisco with mystery fans and mystery authors. 3 1/2 days in total imersion in plots, character, sub-genres, etc.

It's over and here I sit at this Asian bar/restaurant waiting for my spring rolls. At the table next to me are two 20-somethings, a narrow-faced blond and her dark-haired girlfriend.

And the blond chick is mid-story about her mom's first husband, who was a Mafia hit man. "He, like, had all this money from killing people and his whole family was Mafia. I googled him and there were all these articles about him and how they couldn't catch him with, you know, evidence. But he did get stuck in prison and my mom was divorcing him and she started dating my dad. My brother was a little kid and my dad would take him to the prison to see this guy and he liked my dad for that. He was going to get out in like two days when he died of a heart attack or something."

The girlfriend breaks her interested silence. "So you never met him?"

"No, he was just my brother's father. But I know some cousins. And this one time my mom had to live with his mother for months because it was safer, when my brother was a baby, and that's why all she can cook is Italian."

The girlfriend leans back and purses her lips. "Well, I can tell you one thing. It's very hard to cook healthy Italian."

"Yeah, all that pasta."

And they paid their bill, got up, and left.

A parting gift from Bouchercon...

Arizona signing schedule change

Arizona zoo-dunnit fans! There has been a teensy glitch in my reading at Clues Unlimited in Tucson. I'll be there Thursday at 5:30, not tonight (Wednesday) at 5:30. Sorry for the disruption.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Here, there, and everywhere...The Roaming Author

Awk! Bouchercon is here! I've been distracted by a son getting married, but now it's time to put my author hat back on. I'm off the big mystery conference tomorrow.

I'm packing semi-dressy clothes for that, then regular clothes for readings in Arizona afterward, and stuffing in hiking boots for a few days of vacation. One little suitcase isn't enough. I'm looking forward to seeing all the mystery writers and fans, but I'm taking a couple with me. Well, two members of my writing group are going also. Check out Davy Crockett's Almanack for details.

Here's where I'll be in Arizona. Drop on by and say howdy if you are in the area!

October 18, Monday, 2 PM. Velma Teague Library in Glendale, Arizona, hosted by the famous mystery reviewer Lesa Holstine.

October 19, Tuesday, 7 PM, Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. I'll be signing with "Michael Stanley", the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, authors of the Inspector Kubu series.

October 20, Wednesday, 5:30 , Clues Unlimited Bookstore, Tucson, Arizona.

Now where is she?

Monday, October 4, 2010

A zoo blog, for a change

I've been blogging each week for authors using MS Word, and now I'm also writing a column for Third Degree, the newsletter of Mystery Writers of America, on the same subject. So I've decided to cut back and blog on that particular subject only once or twice a month. Time to get back to other topics!

At readings in Portland and Seattle, a few people have asked me about justifying zoos--keeping animals in cages. I have a couple of thoughts on that to share, then a recommendation or two. First, I see my zoo mysteries more as describing zoos than as defending them. Zoo keeping is a strange and wonderful way to relate to wild animals, and I love writing about it. As for defending zoos, Yann Martel did that better than I ever could in Life of Pi. If you haven't tried it yet, it's a great read.

I also would remind people that The Wild is hardly Eden. At a lecture I attended on hyenas, the scientist was asked if any of the animals had died a natural death. She had studied dozens if not hundreds of hyenas in the wild for decades. She thought for a long moment, then said, yes, one had died in her den of kidney disease. The rest had all succumbed to violence of various sorts. Out there in the natural world, animals die young from predation, fights with con-specifics, parasites, drought, starvation, etc. Let's also not forget shooting, poisoning, and trapping.

The wild is getting worse, and zoos, at least in developed countries, are getting better. But saying that is not a justification for zoos. We ought to be protecting natural habitats from the excesses of our species, and plenty of zoos need to be improved or closed. Read about Chinese zoos and shudder. But also read about the best zoos, full of animals born in zoos, and the remarkable efforts of zoo staff to keep them healthy, active, and mentally stimulated.

Most books written by zoo insiders are full of fun stories and successes. They don't much address the realities of funding, politics, antiquated facilities and techniques, sourcing animals and finding homes for superfluous ones. That brings me to my second book recommendation: Zoo Story--Life in the Garden of Captives, by Thomas French. He's not a zoo professional, he's a journalist and therefore free to tackle the tough topics. His tale of Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, and its animal staff and management is very well done. This is the first book I've seen that describes, among other challenging topics, the inevitable conflicts between the animal people and the money people. It's got lots of good animal bits as well--elephants and chimpanzees and tigers--so it's fun. An insightful book that shows what a good journalist can do when he invests years in a project.

Hyena, Sacramento Zoo

Sunday, September 26, 2010

For Fiction Authors: Tidy Time

Spoiler alert: What lies below is Good For You, but not necessarily Fun.

In a break from blogging about how to use MS Word, here are a few reminders about managing your online work.

You will spare yourself frustration, time, and that agonizing "lost file" panic if you get your electronic self organized. If, like me, you spend many hours each week "creating content" on your computer, it is worth a hour or so of housekeeping now and then, right?

1. (You saw this one coming...) Back up your files if you care about them. What if your house burned down? Have you got your work saved to "the cloud" or to a CD or thumb drive stored off-site?

2. Get rid of junk, like all those versions of the manuscript you saved in case you wanted to go back to a scene or phrase you deleted. Get rid of 11 of the 12 almost identical pictures you saved for your blog. Your computer might feel a bit friskier and you will avoid confusing yourself with multiple similar documents.

3. Is your desktop littered with files? Create folders and sub-folders with names that mean something to you. Tuck your documents in where they belong. Then you can find them in a jiffy.

4. Do those documents have good, clear names? Names you will understand 12 months from now? Change them if you need to.

5. Are your anti-virus and anti-spyware programs up to date? It is not wise to be casual or careless about these.

6. Does your email system offer options to tag or organize messages by topic? Take a look and see if you can tidy that up as well.

And that's plenty enough nagging for today!

It's so messy here, so messy...

Oh, to cheer you up, take a look at my totally cool trailer.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

MS Word for Authors: Does this chapter look fat?

Some authors waste a huge amount of energy as they draft a chapter worrying about how many pages long it's gotten to be. I'm one of those dopes. Since all my chapters are in one file, the page count at the bottom of the screen doesn't help. But there is another way to get Word to tell me. This "tip" is for equally misguided souls who have some experience with Word.

This trick works well in combination with chapter titles assigned Heading 1 and Document View turned on, but those aren't essential. You do need a section break after each chapter.

Put your cursor at the end of the chapter title. Space. Now insert the field SectionPages. Here's how.

Word 2007 for Vista: Go to the Insert tab. Find Quick Parts/ Field. Find SectionBreaks and click on it. Click OK.

Word 2003 for Windows XP: Insert/ Field/ SectionPages. Click on it, click OK.

Word 2004 for Macs: Insert/ Field. For Category, select Numbering. The Field name is SectionPages.

Word will drop a number where your cursor was. (This really is a field with programming behind it, not a simple digit.) To speed up adding it to each chapter title, copy the number/field you inserted and paste it in the same place for each chapter title. You will see the number in Document View. Drag the Doc View window wider if necessary.

BUT this section (chapter) page count will be wrong. You must update the fields. Use Ctrl + a (Command + a for Macs) to highlight the entire document. Now press F9 in the top row of your keyboard to "update fields". All the numbers will now be correct, and you will know how long each chapter is. (I had some trouble testing this with a Mac--let me know if it works for you.)

Word will update the fields every time you re-open the document. More important to neurotic writers, you can highlight the document and press F9 whenever you start to worry that the chapter is too short, too long, or full of porridge.

Remember to get rid of the fields before you submit your ms. An easy way is to use Outline View set to Level 1. At each chapter title, delete the field.

Authors are such worriers. Just back up your files and get on with it!

Monday, September 6, 2010

MS Word for Authors--Making Space without the Enter Key

In previous posts, I talked about how to space text horizontally, such as centering chapter titles, without hammering on the space bar or the Tab key. Now for the Enter key!

First, for ordinary fiction, you don't need a line between paragraphs. Indent the first word of each paragraph and skip the second tap on the Enter key. The indent is enough to set off a new paragraph. (Blog posts are different, so don't copy the formatting you see here and now.) To set up the indent, see the August 16 post "We're Stylin' Now" for instructions on modifying styles. Change Normal style, using Modify/ Paragraph/ Indents and Spacing. Find Indentation/ Special. Choose First Line. Word puts in .5 inch. All paragraphs in Normal style will now be indented automatically.

Second--and I know this will arouse fiery passions in some of you--don't double-space after each sentence. One space is enough and will save some poor person the effort to strip out that extra space before publishing.

Third, if you need vertical space, avoid the Enter key. Perhaps you want to drop the title of each chapter so that it is a third or half the way down the page, which some editors prefer (as do I). I repeat: you don't need the Enter key to do this. Instead, put all that space into the paragraph formatting. You are already assigning Heading 1 style to your chapter titles, right? Modify Heading 1 to put that space in automatically. See the August 16 post "We're Stylin' Now" for instructions on modifying styles. When you get to Format/ Paragraph, check that you are on the Indents and Spacing tab of the dialog box. Find the section labeled Spacing. Throw a big number in there, maybe 120 Before and perhaps 24 After. Click OK, click New documents based on this template, click OK. Test this with a new document. If you don't like it, go back and use a bigger or smaller number. For a short story title, this can be a one-time fix instead of changing Heading 1. Right-click and choose Paragraph, then add the space before as described above.

Really, it's better not to have long strings of hard returns (paragraph symbols). They will give you a headache whenever you need to make changes. Let Word do the work instead!

Oh, come on! It's not THAT hard.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Elephants at the Borders

Yes, I'll be talking about elephants and Did Not Survive at the downtown Portland Borders Bookstore, 708 SW 3rd. See you at 7 PM this Friday, September 3!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

MS Word for Authors: A flick of the wrist over brute force

Monday Blog

MS Word offers you at least three ways to do almost anything, but some are better than others. "Better" for writers means, of course, less work when you revise. Who said, "There is no writing. There is only rewriting."?

Whenever you find yourself hammering on the same key--usually the Tab key, Enter key, or the space bar, stop and think. Whatever it is you are trying to do, it's going to be a hairball when/if you need to revise it. Long strings of hard returns (Enter key), tabs, and spaces tangle themselves into nasty knots when you tweak them.

Instead, aim to create a lean, intelligent document rather than a Rube Goldberg kludge, to mix two eras in one metaphor. It's not that hard. If you write every day, or at least frequently, the techniques will stay with you. Nothing wrong with leaving yourself a trail of breadcrumbs either, which is traditionally the "lion's mane" of notes on yellow stickies stuck all around your computer screen. (You knew I'd work animals in somehow.)

OK. Enough exhortation. Today I'll cover how to avoid the tab key entirely.

Centering text: If you want text centered, perhaps your title, first be sure the cursor (a vertical bar) is blinking quietly somewhere in the paragraph you want to change. If it isn't where it ought to be, surprises will ensue.

Once you've clicked in the target paragraph, take a look at the toolbar at the top of the screen. There should be lots of odd symbols up there, two rows of them. Drift your cursor (the arrow) over them without clicking anything. Look for a series of little boxes filled with little horizontal lines. Balloons will pop up, helpfully informing you as to their function. Find the one that says "Center text." Click. The text in the paragraph you indicated is now centered on the page.

This is better than hitting the space bar or the tab key to scoot the text to the middle of the page. Why? Because if you change the text, adding or subtracting words, it will re-center itself automatically. Cool,no? The same logic applies to Center Text's neighbors, Align text left, Align text right, and Justify.

Aside from the title, fiction should be left justified--Align text left. The words line up neatly on the left and the right margin is "ragged", like this blog text. Avoid Justify, no matter how much those smooth margins on both sides appeal to your OCD. Justify is reserved for amateurs and graphic designers.

If you set your chapter title to Center Text and then press Enter to start a new line, the words you type on this next line are centered also. Word copies the formatting of the previous paragraph. Set that next paragraph to Normal style and all should be well.

Indent first line: Tab is another way, not the best way, to put text where you want it, but only the first line of the paragraph.

For fiction, normally the first line of each paragraph is indented .5 inch. This sets off each new paragraph for legibility. Don't space between paragraphs (hit the Enter key after each paragraph). It's not needed.

Word has tabs pre-set every five spaces, so you can tab once for every new paragraph. Or you can set Normal style to do this for you, which lets Word do the work. Refer to a previous post for instructions on modifying Normal style. Look for Modify/ Paragraph/ Indents and Spacing. Find Indentation/ Special. Choose First Line. Word puts in .5 inch.

While you're there, check that Line Spacing is set to what you want, usually Double.

Click OK. Click New documents based on this template. Click OK.

Open a new document and test drive it.

It's a worthy goal to avoid ever using the tab key. Your publisher, e- or p-, will appreciate it.

I like to let Word do the work.

Monday, August 23, 2010

MS Word for Authors: Chapter Titles--In which our hero, Dirk Graysteele, learns he is the natural son of Prince Igor The Intransitive and ...

MS Word for Authors, Monday blog #4

Now that you have assigned style Heading 1 to each chapter and discovered the delights of Document View, consider this. Perhaps you know perfectly well what happens in Chapter 9 and 24 and 33. Or perhaps not. Was the bloody dagger discovered in Chapter 12 or was it 13? Did you remember to move the charging rhino chapter to after the fire bombing?

When you send the ms to your publisher, you probably want simple chapter titles. But until then, it can be handy to cram a mini-synopsis into each. Here's an example.

13 Dirk/Zelda in Rome,neurotox,sex,pitbull

Keep it short so you can see the key words in the Doc View panel. It's easy to clean them all up after your final edits.

Dirk wrestles alligator

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The good, the bad, the (not yet) ugly

The good news is that Did Not Survive is getting some great reviews. This from the zoo world:

"Ann Littlewood is an exceptional writer and as a former zoo employee knows what it is like on the inside. She does not make the offputting mistakes that other authors make when they venture zoo side. ... Whereas all zoo people will enjoy reading them so too would any fan of mystery and suspense. What is more whoever reads them will learn something about zoos and the people who work in them too." Zoo News Digest

From Vancouver, Washington, where Did Not Survive is set:

"There may be only one thing harder than publishing a first novel: pulling a second healthy rabbit out of the same hat.

But Portland writer Ann Littlewood’s sophomore novel is out — Did Not Survive, a second offering in her Zoo Mystery series — and it’s even better than her debut." Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun in The Vancouver Voice.

Of course I'm tickled pink.

And I need good news because I broke my arm on Friday, August 13. My right arm. The one I like to use every single day for tasks such as writing this blog. Sigh. I hunt, I peck, my husband ties my shoe laces. Such are the consequences of frisking about on stumps out in the woods.

But, if all goes well, no surgery needed. That would be ugly.

Monday, August 16, 2010

MS Word for Authors: We're stylin' now

Monday Blog for Fiction Writers #3

MS Word, in its ceaseless efforts to be helpful, offers a variety of "styles," each with a name. Styles are handy and worth getting to know. It takes a little trouble to understand them, but they can save you a lot of effort forevermore (or until you move to a new computer). Adjusting Normal style to suit your needs saves work every time you start a new document. Applying the style named Heading 1 to your chapter titles opens up many useful features.

Hang in with me, experiment a little with these two styles, and see if the effort pays off.

A "style" in Word is a bundle of formatting applied to a paragraph. We will keep this simple by discussing only Normal style and Heading 1 style. (Note: Heading 1 style and Header style are totally distinct.)

"Style" applies to a paragraph. It's a paragraph if it ends in a paragraph mark, even if it's only one word or a period or nothing but a hard return. And now would be a good time to turn on Show/Hide so you can see those hard returns/paragraph marks. You create one every time you hit the Enter key. Those little puppies carry a lot of information and it's best to know where they are and what they are up to.

First, Normal style. This is the default, what you get unless you choose something else. Word tells you which style applies to the paragraph your cursor is in. Open a new document and look at the top tool bars until you find the word Normal. Remember where that box, the style indicator, is. "Normal style" determines the font, font size, and line spacing, among other things, of each new document. The tool bar shows you some of the style's characteristics--the font, size, etc.--but not all of them.

If you are tired of fixing the font and indent and line spacing for every new document, I have good news for you. Change Normal style and every new document will start out the way you want it. Usually authors want double spacing, Times New Roman, 12 point, indent the first line. All that information can be adjusted in Normal style. Here's how.

Word 2003 for XP: Go to Format/Styles and select Formatting. This opens up a side panel. Click on Normal. Pull down the little menu. Select Modify. Either make changes there or click on Format in the lower left corner. To make the changes "stick" for all new documents, find the Add to template box and click it before clicking OK. Do not click Automatically update. This is devil-spawn that will drive you to an early grave.

Word 2007 for Vista: Right-click on Normal and select Modify. Proceed as for Word 2003.

Word 2004 for Mac: Select Format/Style and click the Modify button. Proceed as for Word 2003.

Explore the options. It's not that hard to set up what you want. Save it and open a new document. Is it all good? If you hit problems, try again and/or add a comment below and tell me the problem.

Now for Heading 1. Apply it to every chapter title (but not the novel title). Click on "Chapter 1," then go to the box that says Normal and instead select Heading 1. That's all there is to it. If you don't like looks of Heading 1, change it the same way you changed Normal style.

Having your chapter titles in Heading 1 style opens up a lot of possibilities. For openers, find Document View and turn it on. Now you can jump around in your document at will. Document View is in the View menu. On the Mac, it's called Navigation Pane. I love Document View and I bet you will, too.

Next time: More on chapter titles.

I wasn't born yesterday. I backed up my files.

Monday, August 9, 2010

MS Word for Authors--Put it all in one file!

This Blog #2 For Fiction Writers combines persuasion and instruction.

Here's the pitch: Create your novel in one big file, rather than each chapter in a separate file. (Already there? Read on for a couple more points.)

Why not one file? Let me count the ways:
1) You get a page count and word count at the bottom of the screen (and I will not yield an inch to those who say automatic word counts won't do.)
2) You can do a global search-and-replace, say if "Billy" must become "Tyrone", instead of opening and repeating the change in 30-odd chapters,
3) If you fear you have overused "just" or "irrevocably" you can easily search the whole document,
4) Your chapters are in the right order and can be re-ordered and renamed.
There are probably more reasons, but that's enough for now.

But wait, you cry! The file will be too big and therefore slow. The file for my latest 256 page, 85,000 word novel Did Not Survive is 676 kb. A recent picture of my dog came in at 4.38 mg, or over 6 times as big. Text files are small. If your computer can't handle a file of less than 1 mg., no one can help you.

But what if I want to print only one chapter at a time? You still can. Put a section break at the end of every chapter instead of a page break. (Instructions follow.) Don't add any other section breaks. (We are keeping this simple.) Then, go to the print dialog box. Where it offers you the option of entering a page range, enter S3 for section 3, which is chapter 3, or S12 for chapter 12. Then click the print button. That chapter is all that will print. You can even enter S1-S4 to print Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4.

But it's hard to find the chapter I want to work on. One way to find the start of the chapter is to search for the title, say, Chapter 3. But I will describe a more elegant way in a future post, when you assign a style (Style 1) to each chapter title and turn on Document View.

How to insert a section break: You want it the end of the chapter (or beginning of the next chapter, same thing).
Word 2007 for Vista: Go to the Page Layout tab, then the Page Setup section. Find "Breaks". Look at the list and select Section Break/Next Page.
Word 2003 for XP: Insert/Break. Select Section break types/Next page.
Word 2004 for Mac: Go to Insert on the top tool bar. Find Break/Section Break (Next Page).

With Show/Hide turned on (see previous Monday blog), you'll now see a double line with the words "Section Break (Next Page) in mid-page".

If your WIP is in separate chapters now, here's how to put them all into one file. Back them up first, of course. Then open Chapter 1, go to the bottom, and enter a section break. Leave the cursor right where it is.

Word 2007 for Vista: Go to the Insert tab. Way over to the right in the Text section is Object. Pull the menu down and select Text from File.
Word 2003 for XP: Insert/File
Word 2004 for Mac: Insert/File
A dialog box opens up. Navigate to the next chapter and select Insert. Repeat as needed.

Next week: Assigning a style to your chapter titles and the benefits thereof.

As ever, comments, corrections, and criticsm are welcomed.

I'm sleeping easy because I backed up my WIP.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Washington County Fair

Saturday I visited the Washington County fair with my sisters. We had a fine time looking at sheep and chickens and quilts. In the cow barn, we found a Jersey who had just given birth to a heifer calf. It was still wet, with the mother licking it assiduously. I was, of course, entranced, but lots of parents were trying to help their kids see, so I got out of the way and came back later.

The calf was standing up by then, standing and falling, and getting back up. A young man was in the little stall with them. He said it was the cow's first calf, and the zoo keeper part of me promptly went tharn. Bring an animal to a busy fair for a birth? A young cow with no experience? What if the calf presented wrong and was born dead? What if she freaked out and trampled the calf? What if she rejected it due to stress?

But, but, but... This was a domestic animal and those zoo keeper reflexes were inappropriate. They became even more inappropriate as I watched the three of them--cow, calf, handler--interact.

The little gal didn't know much, but she knew what she had to do. Find a large brown object, shove your nose under it, and find something to suck. The cow was amenable to this.

Here we had a willing mother and a healthy baby, the infant/maternal dance in perfect step. How often have zoo people prayed for just that? Please please please don't panic and step on your kid or refuse to let it nurse. Please let the baby be strong and healthy and insistent on finding the nipple. This while tip-toeing around the den or stall and watching from remote video cameras.

But that was not the program. The future for the heifer was a bottle, which the boy kept offering her. She wanted no part of it, but eventually he will win out. The calf will be bottle fed, then pail fed. The cow will go to the milking stall twice a day. I will have cream in my coffee, and that is how it is.

Monday, August 2, 2010

MS Word: Crisis Avoidance & Crisis Managment

This blog is adding a new feature: a Monday series for fiction writers on how to use MS Word--short posts featuring one or two tips. This is my opportunity to give back to the writer community that has been so supportive.

Here you have Post #1 on MS Word.

Why we use Word: The entire point of word processing, as contrasted to using a typewriter, is that the document is easier to edit. Setting up your novel for easy revision will be a major focus.

To start with the fundamentals...

Back up your novel to something other than your hard drive every time you make substantial changes. This has nothing to do with Word and everything to do with writer sanity. Put the backup media (CD, thumb drive) somewhere safe, away from your computer, where you won’t lose it and where the scumbag who steals your computer won't find it easily. As an alternative method, if you use a web-based email program such as gmail or yahoo or hotmail, you can email the file to yourself. Then it lives on "in the cloud" (really, on your email provider's servers), where you can download it if you need it--until you delete the email.

You can replace the computer, but not your work--unless you have a backup. Why not go do that right now? This blog can wait.

To start with a few suggestions for Bad Times with Word: slow down, examine every label, message, and icon very carefully, and proceed methodically. Specific tips:

1) Find the Show/Hide button and turn it on. The button looks like a reverse P, a paragraph mark. In Word 2007 for Vista, it's on the Home tab in the Paragraph menu. In Word 2003 for XP, it's somewhere on the top toolbar, also true for Word 2004 for Mac. That button is there, but it's oddly hard to spot.

Find it and click it on. Now you will see all the hard returns, tabs, spaces, page breaks, etc. that might be causing your problem. These "non-printing" characters may look confusing at first, but seeing what's up with them can help enormously if you are having problems.

2) If you are changing the format of your document, do it one step at a time. Take a close look and save if a change looks OK. “Undo” changes that don’t work out. Use the Undo button or enter Ctrl+Z (PC) or Command + Z (Mac).

3) Worst case, close the document and say “No” to saving the changes. That sets it back to the last time it was saved, and you can try again.

4) Still having problems with inexplicable behavior? Close Word out completely, count to 10 slowly (that's for you, not Word), and re-open it to clear its brain.

That's a little on crisis management. Next week we'll investigate why you should put the whole novel into one file rather than a separate file for each chapter.

The picture has nothing to do with anything.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Fame and Glory!

Hey, how cool is this? I'm featured in today's Oregonian, in the Arts & Entertainment section! And it's online, too! Me! Little old mystery author me!

OK, OK, I'm calming down. But how cool is that? I mean, really...

All right. All right. I'm going to lie down with a cold cloth on my forehead. Deep releasing breath...


Monday, July 26, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Annie's Got Her Gun

Dear Reader,
The things I do for you! I spent last Saturday at a class titled Handgun Knowledge for Fiction Writers, sponsored by Oregon Writers' Colony. The general idea was that I would learn how to write authentic, exciting Scenes With Guns and not make a fool of myself the way people do on TV and in films. Pity the poor actors, stuck with stupid lines from scriptwriters who don't do their homework. So I spent an afternoon in the country with five other writers who didn't know any more than I did about shooting people. I mean, shooting guns.

Gary Crane told us and showed us a whole lot about handguns and ammunition. I learned that a cartridge is a bullet plus a shell case, that it can be "rim fire" or "center fire", and that gunpowder comes in different varieties. I learned that sticking my finger into the barrel of a gun pointed at me won't save my life and that when a handgun does blow up, the energy usually goes sideways and not into the shooter's face. I learned that a revolver is called that because--who knew?--the barrel revolves. I learned that a person getting shot doesn't fall over backwards dramatically--he or she falls down, period. Or not, depending.

We were sitting outside on a lovely day with a lovely view of meadow and woods, and I missed the part about different kinds of cartridges because a western tanager was messing around in a sumac tree behind the instructor. I don't see western tanagers very often and this was a bright male, altogether beautiful.

After the class, we shot off a bunch of handguns. I fired 13 rounds and I'm pleased to say that they all hit the target. By which I mean a large piece of paper not very far away. I was among the first to shoot, and a writer who hadn't had her turn yet asked me how it felt. "Serious," was the word I came up with. "Was it thrilling?" Well, a little. But I'm pretty sure that shooting off a machine gun would not be, for me, what the instructor promised: "the most exciting thing you'll ever do." Not that we had that option.

The class brought up all sorts of thoughts about guns and how they fit into people's lives, about protecting oneself, about personal freedoms and how one person's liberty can mean another person's death. I don't think I'll ever put in the time to really know guns. But I learned some terminology, I know what the recoil feels like, I imagined a few Scenes With Guns.

And I got to see a western tanager.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Did Not Survive treks to India

I am so thrilled! Here I am working on the launch party, readings and events for Did Not Survive, which isn't officially out until the end of the month, and I found this.

It's for sale in India for Rs 866! I have no idea how much that is in dollars (it's discounted from Rs 1,125, a la Amazon.com). But still! India! Rupees!

Well, it makes sense. Did Not Survive features Asian elephants, and who knows them better than Indians? (uh, Thais? Cambodians? but never mind...)

You just never know where this author biz will take you. Metaphorically.

I found this tidbit because I get anxious at this stage of a new book and was searching for reviews. (I know, I'm not supposed to. You try this someday and see if you can resist.) Some have already come in. Here's one and another.

Monday, July 5, 2010

In defense of camel aesthetics

I've always thought camels are under appreciated. There's that statement meant to be a slur: "a camel is a horse put together by a committee". True, but that's a compliment, not a slur, on two levels. First, committees tend to make better decisions than individuals, as various studies have shown. (You'll have to look up the references yourself.) Second, a camel is far better designed than a horse to survive and remain useful in an arid climate.

Zoo visitors tend to look at camels and describe them as ugly. I don't think so. In fact, I have a herd of plastic, wood, and straw "camels of Christmas" that come out every year. I admire a big ceramic camel in the Asian Art section of the Portland Art Museum and make a point of visiting it.

I've noticed that camels are often depicted with head thrown back and mouth open. At a recent visit to Oakland Zoo I had a "duh!" moment watching this. A big male camel sniffed the rear end of a female and threw his head back, mouth open. Classic "flehmen"!

Males of many species behave similarly. They are tasting the females urine with a special organ in the roof of their mouth to determine whether she's coming into estrus. Lions do it, elephants do it, horses do it. Read about it Wikipedia. Other strong or unusual scents may trigger the response as well and not just in males. There's even a rumor that humans have a rudimentary vomeronasal organ, even though we don't curl our lips.

In camels, flehmen makes for a dramatic pose that apparently artists and their patrons appreciate. Perhaps the antique ceramic figure I admire was created by a person with a lot more experience with camels than I've ever had.

Picture by Nancy Parker

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bonobo Handshake: A book review

In my new identity as a book reviewer, here’s a new one on bonobos, (formerly called “pygmy chimpanzees”) that I enjoyed very much. Not a mystery, but well-written popular science about a little-known great ape.

Bonobo Handshake, by Vanessa Woods. June 2010. Gotham Books.

This tale is a headlong scramble through Vanessa Woods’ experiences raising chimpanzees and bonobos orphaned by the bushmeat trade, her volatile romance with a scientist, the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and why her father was not a better man. This is not merely a sweet tale of saving little ape lives, although that is there in vivid detail. Through her life in Africa, the lives of the staff at Lolo ya Bonobo, and the lives of the bonobos, she draws us into the history of the Congo, and an ugly one it is. This is not a book for children. No book about the history of the Congo could be.

Woods leaps bravely off the deep end to show us why the mothers of the baby apes are dead, why the Congolese staff is intimately familiar with death, and why she has good reason to fear for her own safety and her husband’s. In vivid, self-deprecating, often present-tense language, she alternates between the grotesque atrocities that humans inflict on one another in this war-torn country and the everyday life of the sanctuary, where getting a starved and brutalized baby bonobo to giggle may be essential to its physical as well as emotional survival. A self-identified “chimp girl,” her comparisons of chimps and bonobos are fascinating and backed up by the research she and her husband accomplished at sanctuaries.

The quibbles: Her publisher erred in not providing a good map of the Congo. Photos would have been a great addition as well. Not much from long-term studies of wild bonobos is included, possibly because the papers aren’t yet available or else not in English. Also, our view of chimps changed radically between the early years of field studies and the decades-long studies that revealed far less appealing characteristics such as murder and warfare; the same could happen with bonobos. Woods goes rather “Joyce Maynard” on her husband, revealing an almost-violent incident that could be taken, by the cynical, as a set-up for emphasizing her point about how bonobos resolve male-on-female violence.

These concerns aside, in a land where millions died by violence in recent years, she asks what the sexy, friendly, relaxed bonobo can teach us. Plenty, I hope, if we can keep the species around long enough. If the apes aren’t enough for you, read it for the global politics, and weep. A powerful read.

Here's a link to the website of the bonobo sanctuary where Woods worked.

Thanks to Gotham Books (Penguin) for providing a copy of the book at the 2010 Public Library Association conference.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bowling for Rhinos


Unfamiliar with the concept? Picturing rhinos ramming bowling balls with their horns? Not quite. It's a fundraiser for rhino conservation, and a damn impressive one.

Rhino poaching is at a 15 year high--it takes armed guards on patrol to keep wild rhinos alive. For real.

You've heard of a pod of killer whales and a pride of lions. The group noun for zoo keepers is "a poverty". Nonetheless, the American Association of Zoo Keepers has managed to raise $3,466,911 for direct, on-the-ground rhino conservation over 20 years. That helps support rhino habitat in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia, and two parks in Sumatra (Bukit Barisan Selatan and Way Kambas). The money for the Indonesian parks is managed by the International Rhino Foundation. I know the zoo keepers raising these funds as well as the Executive Director of IRF. Friends have visited Lewa and seen their work. Bowling for Rhinos is the real deal.

The money has paid for an airplane, a truck for relocating animals, solar-powered electric fencing, boats, and training and uniforms for rangers.

The Portland Chapter of AAZK has held this event for 20 years. Show up for the bowling on Saturday, June 19 at Sunset Lanes and make your contribution in person (tell 'em I sent you). Or send a check to

AAZK Portland Chapter
c/o Oregon Zoo
4001 Southwest Canyon Road
Portland, OR 97221

Write "Bowling for Rhinos" on the check.
Rhinos need you.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Blue and Gold Macaws

Oakland Zoo, March 2010. I think I saw these same birds in March 2001, eight years ago. Macaws live up to about 50 years, so no surprise. These are blue-and-gold macaws. Beautiful. Here's more about them.

Pictures by Nancy Parker

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Author anxiety syndrome

At Bouchercon a few years ago, a huge mystery conference, I met a very successful mystery author. I looked her up afterward, and she had a list of well-received books that I envied. She was waiting for the reviews of her newest book, and she was a nervous wreck--biting her fingernails and twitching. I checked a few weeks later, and the reviews were fine, very positive. It was a puzzle. With her track record, what was there to fear?

Now I understand. When my first zoo mystery, Night Kill, was ready to hit the shelves, I learned what an anxiety attack was all about. Public speaking? Job interview? Getting married? Nah, if you want panic, publish a book. At least if you are me. Visions of humiliation, public contempt, vicious attacks on my writing, plot, and zoo information arose vivid and unbidden. I slept poorly and contemplated changing my name and moving to Belize.

I shoulda seen it comin'. This whole author gig is an emotional roller coaster. Writing is a joy. Then come the rejection letters. But at last, an agent! Whoopee! But can she sell the book? Ah, yes--more rejection. The book sells! Whee! Oops, then it gets published... And so it goes. It's exhausting. But maybe that's part of what I'm in the game for. I'm not one for boredom.

I saved all the reviews of Night Kill, even the bad ones, and recently re-read them. Turns out the bad ones weren't so bad and the good ones were really nice. (Take a peek at those nice ones here.) I'd forgotten most of the positive comments but remembered every one of the negative observations. Go figure.

Now I'm at it again. Did Not Survive is due out in late July. No reviews yet from the big guys: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, or Foreword. Will they love it? Will the rest of the world love it? Will animal rights activists picket my house? How much property can I afford in Belize?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Take that, human person!

Some days, all you can do is stick your tongue out.

Oakland Zoo, picture by Nancy Parker

Monday, May 31, 2010

Mystery Review: Thirty-Three Teeth

I've been neglecting the writing and mystery side of this blog and decided to start incorporating the occasional mystery review. (Thanks to friend Evan Lewis for jabbing me in the ribs about this!)

I've just finished Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill, Soho Crime, and I'm here to rave. This is the second in this series and is set in, of all places, Laos in the 1970's, not long after the Communists took over. Yes, it's got animal characters that qualify it for this blog, especially an old, abused Asian bear (non-spoiler: happy ending for bear).

I've been fascinated by Southeast Asia since my son lived in Cambodia (five long years) and a visit there in 2003, but I've never been to Laos. It's reputation among the ex-pats in Cambodia was that Laos was unspoiled, beautiful, and cheaper than Cambodia (and that's pretty darn cheap).

Thirty-Three Teeth
pulls you into Laos without a trace of lecture or preaching: climate, geography, history, cultural conflicts, psychology, day-to-day living, and so on. The protagonist is the National Coroner, Dr. Siri, with supporting roles from his young female assistant, a policeman friend, a shaman, and a good many others. The plot is loosely-woven threads of untimely deaths, some of them connected, some not, all of them eventually deciphered by the good Dr. Siri and his friends.

Here's the remarkable thing. Thirty-Three Teeth is pure fun. The dialog made me laugh more than any mystery I've read in the last two years. The villains are corrupt bunglers, the heroes are tired, sweaty, smart, and kind. This is not a mystery full of clues with a tricky plot, nor is it a thriller about desperate CIA agents prepared to kill in the course of espionage. It is grounded in every day reality in a distant, strange land where spirits must be taken seriously, where people are figuring out what it means to live under an officious and ineffectual communist government, where scarcity is a way of life. And, somehow, it is delightful, smart, and open-hearted.

The first in the series is The Coroner's Lunch and there are four others.

Side note: Cotterill has a literacy project going for Laos. I can attest to the problems around kids' books in SE Asia. We tried to buy Khmer language comic books for my son's housekeeper. We finally found some in one of the two tiny bookstores in Phnom Penh. The pair cost the same as a week's salary for her, and she was well paid by local standards. A week's salary for two comic books? Yup. So kids aren't going to get reading material unless someone helps. Take a look at the link. A few dollars will go a long way.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Clicker training demonstration

Thanks to an ex-zookeeper friend, I learned about this great little video showing clicker training with a dog and then at Franklin Park Zoo. (I saw that griffon vulture! I put her picture in a blog!)

It's also an ad for Karen Pryor's book, but it's really good for a basic understanding of modern animal training and how broad the application is--also how kind and fun it is compared to other methods of getting animals to cooperate. Take a look.


Monday, May 3, 2010