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

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