About this blog...

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Zoo Keeper Never Forgets

 My spousal unit arranged tickets for a Lucinda Williams concert last night and we had a great time. Her encore was especially fine--covers of protest songs. I haven't heard Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December" in years. Brings a tear every time.

So this morning when he (the husband, not Merle) brought me coffee in bed, I smiled from my pillow with a special twinkle. But no. "Get up. There's a possum in the basement," he announced. "I've got a sign to paint down there. The customer's coming in two hours." He didn't quite wring his hands.

Ah, true love. Our contract is clear: he deals with dead animals, I cope with the live ones. "Go ahead and paint the sign," I said. "If it's on the other side of the basement, it won't attack." And I hauled my rear out of bed wishing we had some thick leather gloves and a catch pole. I drank the coffee, got dressed (opting for boots over sports shoes), and explored what the garage had to offer in the way of capture gear. It offered a five-gallon bucket.

As for how the possum got in--had to be the doggie door--and why our noble canine, Murphy The Hairy Little Dog, didn't deal? His attitude seems to be that he is a lap dog and a ball dog and if we have troubles with empty laps or escaping tennis balls, he's the pup for the  job. But interloping possums? He didn't even bark. I doubt he ever knew it was there. So much for keen senses and ancient instincts.

No one would accuse Didelphis virginiana of excessive competence, and this specimen was no exception. The teenage varmint sat hunkered down on the lid of our washing machine in a basement replete with dark hidey-holes. It could not have been  more conspicuous. It hissed at me. Again I wished for good gloves. But it just sat there as I clapped the bucket over its head, shoved a thin piece of plywood underneath, and carried it all out to the driveway. I turned the critter loose and it ran off to become someone else's problem. Husband cheered.

So take note, all of you who see my gray hair and wonder just how long it's been since I actually worked at a zoo. It's been awhile, I'll cop to that, but the skill set? Still in place, at least in part. And now I've got the evidence.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Tragedy in Zanesville, Ohio

I break blog-silence and interrupt work on Threatened & Endangered to mourn the disaster in Ohio--49 of 56 escaped wild animal shot to death. Most of them were carnivores--lions, tigers, bears. Read about it HERE.

What a horrible outcome to a damaged man's hobby. But how surprising is this, really? What individual can afford to feed and care for that many animals properly? Who would take them if he became disabled? Who wants to live next door? Keeping dangerous animals as pets has got to be one of the worst ideas "animal lovers" can come up with.

Oh, and let me add here, that the vast majority of these private collections make zero contribution to conservation. Especially if they breed tigers. No one outside the pet trade and the traditional Asian medicine trade has any use for mongrel tigers. Read that again--there is no conservation value to tigers or any other wild animal bred outside a planned breeding program coordinated with other institutions. Zero.

This is about people trying to feel valued and loved by surrounding themselves with charismatic creatures. This is about the humane care of wild animals who are totally under the control of people. This is about what happens when private collections are celebrated and envied.

Ohio will take another look at its laws, among the laxest in the nation. Many people will urge tight controls over exotic animal ownership. Those who already own exotic animals will fight hard to prevent this, probably on grounds that they shouldn't be punished for the mistakes of another. As far as I'm concerned, keeping any dangerous wild animal (and most of them are dangerous) as a pet is the mistake. The pet owner may benefit emotionally, but the animal suffers an unnatural life and the rest of us are at risk. Sanctuaries are stuffed with discarded wild animal pets. Enough already.

Cheetahs in the wild. Just to cheer me up.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Here's a blog I did for Poisoned Pen Press. I'm hard at work on the next zoo mystery plus travel plus house guests, so this will have to do for now!

Day-Tripping with Crime Fighters

Monday, August 29, 2011

Try this at home: Enrich the Dog

I've been reading The Animal Keeper Forum lately, the newsletter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers. It's chock full of "enrichment" ideas--ways to stimulate, entertain, and challenge animals that might otherwise be bored into pacing, chewing on the fence, or harassing their companions. Instead, the keepers rack their brains to come up with puzzle feeders, toys, and a variety of experiences and sensations. They do this not just because they want the best quality of life for the animals, but also because a formal enrichment program is a requirement for Association of Zoos & Aquariums' accreditation.

Mind you, this has to be done is such a way as to not scare the bejabbers out of the critter, not give them the opportunity to damage themselves (think of a two-year-old and a nice length of rope), and not put the keeper or other animals at risk. The ideas are wonderfully creative.

Meanwhile, Murphy nudges my thigh and recommends another walk. How to apply the same creativity to my own dog? We provided lots of toys, puzzle feeders, and walks when Murphy was a puppy because it was entirely clear that he would destroy property relentlessly until and unless we did. But he's grown up now and we've slacked off. Time to think about this again.

Keepers work with scent, object, audio, food, and training categories of enrichment.

I tried scent first by digging out an old bottle of Wrappings perfume, by Clinique, and giving a few squirts to objects in the backyard. Murphy noticed that the yard now smelled like a bordello, but, frankly, he didn't give a damn. Bits of liver treats scattered on the lawn were a different matter. That's enriching as all get out.
 Got one!

Next up: objects. I've neglected the rule for toys: rotate them. The eviscerated hedgehog, the shredded tug-a-war toy, the half-gnawed Nyla bones--yawn. I took them all away and dug out a weird fuzzy egg-thing with a squeaker in it. That is Big Fun. I'll give him one of his toys each day and take one away so they stay fresh.

Oooh! I will destroy you!

Audio: That was a stumper. Then I remembered Birdscapes, a big pop-up book by Miyoko Chu with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (I love pop-up books.) It opens to a landscape with bird and environmental sounds. I tried the Eastern Deciduous Forest, frogs and a ruffed grouse. Murphy was interested and a little scared, but the fuzzy brown egg was more fun. We have music in the house regularly, which doesn't interest him, but people use the sidewalk out front and sometimes have the effrontery to converse, which requires barking. Enough with the audio enrichment!

What the??

Food: See Scent, above. Liver treats says it all. No, we go farther. An adult dog needs to be fed only once a day, but we feed three times. He's a dog who appreciates a little garnish, not much, just--please--make an effort! A light grating of a nice Parmesan, a swirl of chicken gravy, a dribble of bacon grease. I am guilt-free on that subject. And, of course, there are puzzle feeders. I pull one of these out if we're going to be gone most of the day and either put his breakfast in it or a smear of peanut butter.

Training: We haven't done Circus Dog much lately. I've got this book to write! But it's only 15 minutes after dinner, so that excuse is lame. Murphy loves Circus Dog. Focused attention plus liver treats. What more could a dog ask? We have guests coming, so the show will be on. Sit, lie down, speak, shake hands, up on the stool, down from the stool, jump through the hoop. We working on fetch the brown chew toy versus fetch the white chew toy, but it's not in  place yet. Murphy leaves show biz to chew the chew toy.

House guests ought to be on the enrichment list, no? New faces, new petters. And his walks, once or twice a day, to check out the neighborhood and chase the ball at the park. I try to take a different route now and then. Sleep-overs with his friend Sally the cattle dog when we're out of town.

The Enriched Dog

What else can dog people do to keep their canine mentally alert and interested in life? Add a suggestion and I'll see what Murphy thinks of it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


I've been hammering away at Threatened & Endangered, so don't expect much of a blog for awhile. That would be #3 in my zoo-dunnit series and it is action-packed. Now to get all that drama in the right order...

But here is a tidbit, a site called Spoilerville. It's for people to discuss books they've already read. So don't go snooping around there if you haven't read whatever book, because you will find spoilers in the discussion. Sounds like fun to me.

Here's the links to my books:
Night Kill
Did Not Survive

Murphy's ready for Spoilerville.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cow Whisperer

I freely confess that I don't know much about cows, at least not first hand. I can tell a Holstein from an Angus, but I've never had any hands-on experience. So perhaps some reader can educate me about their psychology.

We were traveling in Central Oregon in early July and got word that elk could be sighted at sun-down on the road to the Painted Hills. That turned out to be true, but too dark for photos. We saw bulls with antlers and calves frisking in the dusk--lovely.

But about the cows. On the way, before we found the elk, I pulled over at a pasture full of cows, I forget why. Son Jesse hopped out of the car and stood at the fence and stared at the cows. The closest ones stared right back. Then they walked toward him.

Notice the cows scattered all over the field.

He kept standing there and cows kept coming. Every single cow in that field bunched up watching him.

The cows came only just so close and if a cow got shoved closer, he or she struggled to get back behind that invisible line. I got Jesse to back up a few steps and the cows all took a few steps forward.

Now Jesse is a charismatic guy, no question. But I suspect this has to do with how cows are wired. They've got hooves, so they obey the "run if it's scary" rule, but if "it" isn't scary, does the rule become "walk up just so close and check it out?

Is this typical? If you have cow-sense or cattle wisdom, enlighten me!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ivory and Rhino Horn: an Oregon (!?) Perspective

I live a long way from Africa, in the far western city of Portland, Oregon. A lifetime of interest in conservation and 12 years as a zoo keeper have kept me interested in African and Asian wildlife. I haven't made it to the great game parks of India and Nepal yet, but I visited Kenya this last March.

The myth of Africa is that it is still what the American West once was--open, unfenced, full of wild beasts roaming free. That visit in March showed me how outdated the myth is. Like the plains and mountains of eastern Oregon, northern Kenya is cattle ranches, farms, and towns. Elephants and lions roam there, elk and cougars in Oregon. The elephants and elk are fenced in or out and cursed for damaging farms. Lions and cougars are killed to protect domestic stock.

I don't want to exaggerate the commonality, but I've been finding other comparisons with Oregon.

It's conventional wisdom that Chinese money is driving wildlife poaching in southeast Asia and Africa. Kenyans told me that Chinese truck drivers keep suitcases of money in their cabs for purchasing wildlife products, and this is fueling illegal killing of elephants and rhinos.

This poaching is serious business. Much of it is now run by organized crime gangs with sophisticated weapons, night goggles, and money to buy political protection. Rhino poaching is at a 15 year high and elephant poaching continues unabated because there is a lot of money to be made.
White rhino in Kenya with her sleeping calf.

My reaction to the slaughter is anger and frustration, especially toward end consumers, the people who buy ivory objects to ornament themselves and their homes and who pay for useless rhino horn "medicines". I've remembered or discovered Oregon connections that require me to take a breath, dial back the blame, and try to understand.

People have admired ornamental objects made of ivory for millennia. My Portland grandmother collected ivory. It was legal. She bought pretty little carvings on trips to Thailand and loved them. I remember her crying when some were broken. Yesterday I saw an ad in the Oregonian for an auction that included carved ivory among its offerings.

I took the picture below in a Las Vegas casino Christmas before last.
It's two large elephant tusks intricately carved, with a model ship behind them made of bits of ivory.

The auction item and the Las Vegas offerings are almost certainly older pieces that entered the country before we outlawed their importation and their sale is legal.

So... some people in the U.S. find ivory objects attractive and are willing to pay (plenty) for them. If our government did not enforce international conservation laws, we'd have our own open market for new ivory. But we enforce those laws in part because we have enough people who see exterminating elephants for their tusks as repellent. We'd rather think of elephants alive, roaming those mythical wild spaces or at least the limited habitat we've left them.

As for rhino poaching, the goal is their horns and most of the market is for traditional Asian medicine. A week ago I visited a traditional Chinese pharmacy here in Oregon, in the remote town of John Day. Kam Wah Chung opened as a Chinese social center, labor center, general store, and clinic in 1871, serving Chinese men drawn out of starving Guangdong province by western gold strikes. The building is now a museum, "frozen in time" from the year it shut down, 1948. Click HERE to read its fascinating story.
What captured my attention was that herbalist Ing Hay provided medical care renowned throughout eastern Oregon and the adjoining states. In this intensely racist era, Doc Hay served both white and Chinese patients. Eventually blind, he diagnosed by "pulseology", reading four pulses on the wrists of patients. His treatments were herbal brews, usually described as foul tasting, and he stocked thousands of herbs and other medicinal materials that he ordered from China. Trade with China was far easier and more rapid in that period than I ever realized.
This is the barred pharmacy portion of the Kam Wah Chung building. Note the bear paw and deer leg in the middle, the many boxes of medicines behind.

Consider Ing Hay's competition. My great-uncle graduated from the University of Oregon medical school and worked in Baker City, less than 100 miles from John Day, in the 1890s and early 1900s. I have his black leather medical bag. He could set bones, deliver babies, and sew up wounds, but he had few weapons to combat bacterial infections or pneumonia or many other lethal diseases, such as the infection that killed him at age 49.
Dr. William Parker and Comeaux, about 1896.

Sulfa drugs were developed starting in 1939. Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but was not readily available until World War II, when we raced to develop and produce this new miracle drug to save injured soldiers.

No wonder "the Chinaman" did not lack for customers--Ing Hay had treatments for their ails, and his patients learned that no one else did. He died at about age 83, well respected and one of the few Chinese left in John Day.

Practices change, people adapt, old convictions fade. I have my great-uncle's watch fob with an elk's tooth, from his membership in an Elks Lodge. We no longer allow elk to be killed for their two canine teeth. He used the most modern treatments available, but would not recognize much of medicine today. Cultures are not static, especially modern ones.

Why were Americans so willing to abandon herbal and folk treatments? Why do the Chinese and other Asians maintain those traditions? Whatever the reasons, people trust traditional Chinese medicine today just as Ing Hay and his patients did in Oregon a century ago.

The question that matters to me: How to put an end to the slaughter of elephants and rhinos for knick-knacks and outmoded medicines? One path is law enforcement. Another is cultural change--curbing the demand. WildAid and Rhino Conservation address the market for wildlife products in China and other countries through public service ads. World Wildlife Fund works with practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine in the United States to reduce Chinese-American demand.

Oregon hasn't seen free roaming rhinos for millions of years or elephants for thousands (yes, once upon a time both lived here.) To have a species vanish due to natural processes saddens me--I want them all, now. But that's a naturalist's sentimentality. It's quite a different matter to watch our own species exterminating the wonderful biota we inherited. That's not sentimentality, it's moral outrage. Outrage is fine as a motivating force, but it's not necessarily strategic.

Energetic people of good will are doing their best to let elephants and rhinos continue to live out their lives as they always have. I will do my best to give them a hand and I wish you would, too--Oregonians and everyone else.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Cakes, 911, and Night Kill

I did my author thing at a book club last night. I'd never met with a book club before. A group of Vancouver, Washington, women had read Night Kill and asked if I would join them.

What a fun bunch of smart women! We had a great conversation about zoos and grief and nature and a dozen other topics. Thanks, Chris and Kelly and Lisa and the rest of you!

I was amazed that one of them had made me a cake--with a lion and a book! Now I know I've hit the big time. Check out Drake's Cakes on Facebook.

The invitation came as a result of a drive-along I did with a Clark County Deputy Sheriff. Turns out, some of the book club members are 911 operators (and married to deputies). I said, "I bet you have great stories." The reply? "Oh, yeah. You should come sit with us." I learned what DRT means--dead right there. (I do so love work jargon.) I also learned that 911 operators can locate you by your cell phone call only on television. If you get lost, don't call them.

I'll be scheduling that 911 experience soon.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mensa and me

This week Portland hosted a Mensa convention 2,000 people strong, and guess who was tapped as "the local mystery author"? Yes, I was a little intimidated by speaking to a bunch of smarty-pants, so I spent extra time preparing a PowerPoint slide show and rehearsing.

Yesterday the old Honda galloped back from vacation in central Oregon. This morning I switched from wanna-be cowgirl to wanna-be famous author. I loaded up my book-event gear and drove downtown to the Hilton.

This was not my first rodeo (still a little cowgirl going on...) so first thing, I dropped in on the bookseller to see if she had my books, as she promised in phone calls weeks ago. It's not as if there was an honorarium for this gig--10 hours of prep work and the only payoff is the threadbare "exposure" and the chance to sell books. I go the extra mile to support independent booksellers, but this one is coming off my Christmas list. "Your books didn't come in time. I suppose they'll show up Tuesday and I'll have to return most of them." No phone call to warn me, no apology.

No problem. I brought books. Next I fretted about the computer setup. A lovely woman, who had read my books and liked them (oh, blessed be such readers) was my native guide to the assigned room. The AV went just fine--the previous presenter hooked my computer right up. "You're a genius!" I exclaimed. He gave me this odd look. "I'd better be." Oh. Right. Mensa.

There was just one little hitch--I forgot the power cable for my computer. His didn't fit.

Um, no problem. Frantic call to husband. Plenty of battery life to get started, per the little icon.

Nope. Battery gave out after about 15 minutes. I told my very best zoo stories. Husband arrived, and I was good to go. Yay!

The audience was interested and even enthusiastic. They didn't flinch at my conservation pitch. After the talk, they had lots of good questions. Several were from a boy who looked to be about six, judging by the lack of front teeth. And darned if these folks didn't buy a bunch of my books. Directly from me, which means a far greater profit than if they had bought from that lame bookseller.

I was a happy camper and almost home when I remembered the posters I'd left behind in the Hilton's lobby and had to turn around and go back.

Ready for prime time? You be the judge!
What was the question again?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nose to grindstone

I am working away diligently on Zoo Mystery #3 so all I am going to post is a nice picture. It's a pregnant Grevy's zebra, a good metaphor,no? Enjoy!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Another zoo keeper in the mystery world

Linda Lombardi writes a funny blog, Animals Behaving Badly, and now she has a zoo mystery out as well, The Sloth's Eye. Welcome to the mini-genre, Linda!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Did Not Survive pays off

I'm pleased to say that I recently received my first royalty check from Did Not Survive and, as promised, I donated it to conservation. Let me hasten to say that the check was modest--it takes time and luck to establish a mystery series and mine is still new.

Here are the organizations and the reasons I selected them:

Health in Harmony, for their program to provide local jobs reforesting Gunung Palang National Park, an employment alternative to illegal logging.

Center for Biological Diversity for their efforts to save natural areas by suing to enforce US environmental laws.

Asian Elephant Support for their efforts to help both wild and captive Asian elephants.

WildAid for their campaign to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products in Asia.

What would be your choices? Let me know what organization and why. I'll consider them when the next check comes around.

Thanks for thinking of us, but bigger would be better. Go sell more books.

My new look

I inveigled (extorted?) a minor blog make-over from a house guest. Emilie Wapnick is the creator of Puttylike, a website dedicated to "Lifestyle Design for Multipotentialites."

CLICK HERE to see what the 20-somethings are up to these days.

How do you like the new look? Is that a great camel or what?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Balance, breathe, begin again

Today I watched a little video of a Bill McKibben OpEd piece on climate change (click here). It always gets me down to think of the destruction we humans are causing on my watch and my inexplicable failure to put a stop to it. There's some trick to saving the world that I just can't seem to get.

But I just unearthed in the chaos of my desk a Gary Snyder poem that is a small comfort. Perhaps he won't mind me quoting it if I include a link to his page at City Lights bookstore, where you can get lots of his fine poems. Click here.

As the Crickets

As the crickets' soft autumn hum
is to us,
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills

Which I take to mean: all this will pass, regardless of what you or I attempt or accomplish.

Is that really the best you can do?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Brewing up elephant conservation

Here I am doing my utmost for elephant conservation by encouraging the board of Asian Elephant Support to enjoy summer weather and a boatload of beer. This is at ZooBrew, an event at Oregon Zoo showcasing local breweries. (Yes, they have a serious board meeting tomorrow, indoors and cold sober.)

Linda Reifschneider, President and Treasurer (just off the plane from St. Louis); Michelle Schireman (Oregon Zoo zookeeper and supporter); me; April Yoder, Director (Little Rock, AK); Sharon Glaeser, Vice President and Secretary (Portland).

I was pleased to hand Linda a check that was part of the royalties from Did Not Survive, the second in my zoo mystery series.

These folks are supporting important work in Asian elephant conservation. Take a look at their classy website HERE and consider becoming a supporter yourself.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Just a picture--Yellow Necked Spur Fowl

No time to blog, so here is a picture I took in Kenya of a yellow-necked spur fowl. They acted like quail, scampering over the roads and popping up unexpectedly.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Former House Guest Wins Conservation Award!

File this under "Good News." Dr. Hotlin Ompusunggu, an Indonesian dentist, received the Whitley Award, presented to her May 12, 2011, by HRH The Princess Royal (that would be Princess Anne). Hotlin is co-founder of Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI),an Indonesian organization that links the health and well-being of rainforest villages with important wildlife habitat in Gunumg Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The US fundraising arm of ASRI is Health In Harmony, which you may have read about in this blog. (Click HERE to refresh your memory.)

I met Hotlin when I hosted a fundraiser at my house. She's a short, energetic, charming woman who showed me how Indonesians cook rice: boil water, add rice, boil until done. Too much water? Drain some off. Not enough? Add more. Perhaps I've made too much fuss about rice...

She and Dr. Kinari Webb established ASRI to provide health care to some of the poorest people in the world and have linked the health of people to the health of the environment. I was especially impressed that they asked the villagers what they needed, rather than announcing the services they chose to deliver. ASRI is innovative in many respects, including helping to protect and restore Gunung Palung and its orangutan population. Orangs are not doing well at all as Indonesian is deforested for palm oil plantations and other crops, so this is important.

Give a thought to ASRI as one of the charities you support. You get two bangs for your buck--healthcare for people, habitat for a multitude of tropical species. Can't beat that!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

MS Word for Authors: Out with double-hyphens

Double hyphens do the work of em and en dashes, but the same way a piece of rope works as a belt or a door plus two sawhorses makes a table.

You aren't stuck with double hyphens. MS Word will be pleased to insert a far more stylish em or en dash if you ask it to. These live at Insert/Symbols. You may need to dig deeper: More Symbols/Special Characters. I generally use an en dash (the width of the letter N, a bit shorter than the em dash).

Instead of digging through menus to find this symbol every time you need it, you can tell MS Word to substitute a dash when you type a double hyphen. MS Word treats "waht" as a typo and changes it to "what". It can do the same for "--".

First, get yourself a dash. Open up MS Word, find Symbols, and insert a dash so that you can see it on the page. Then highlight it and copy it so that it is stored in the buffer.

Next, find AutoCorrect Options. Use Help if you can't find it under Word Options.

In AutoCorrect, look for a small empty box labeled Replace. Type -- (two hyphens) in that box. Next to it is a box labeled With. Click in that box and Paste the dash into it. Back out by clicking OK.

Now test it and see if it works. Let me know if you can't get this to cooperate.

We are experts at dashes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

MS Word for Authors: Help for fumble fingers

MS Word has a feature named Auto Correct that you might want to get acquainted with.

Perhaps you've noticed, with gratitude, that Word will fix some of your typos the instant you make them.

Perhaps you've noticed that some of those "typos" weren't actually anything that needed changing.

Perhaps you wish Word would fix some of the other mistakes you commonly make.

All this is set up in AutoCorrect and you can tailor it to your needs.

Go to Options and review AutoCorrect. (Use the help to find it if necessary.) AutoCorrect has a few options to check or uncheck. Following that is a long list of characters that Word will automatically replace with other characters. Scroll down this list and see what all Word is up to.

If you really want "nwo" to be left alone and not changed to "now", you can delete it here.

If you are forever typing "Amn" when you mean "Ann" you can add it here.

And you can set up AutoCorrect to change two hyphens (funky) to an en dash (classy). But you have to leave a comment on this blog to get me to reveal the secret.

I love hidden features.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Today: M.E. Kemp, mystery author and pig fancier

Today is a first for this blog: A guest blogger. Please welcome M.E. Kemp, author of Death of A Bawdy Belle, Death of a Dutch Uncle, and Death of A Dancing Master.

A Pig in a Poke

On the very first page of my historical mystery series (featuring two nosy Puritans as detectives,) I introduced a character who was to become a favorite with readers. So popular was my Priscilla that I wrote several short stories featuring her, one of which one first prize in a New England Writers Network contest. Priscilla is a pig -- a very intelligent pig. Indeed, from the children's book, Charlotte's Web, people may have a vague idea that pigs are intelligent animals, as indeed they are. Probably the breed of the highest intelligence is the handsome pig known as the Tamworth. Ginger-colored and long legged, not your regular fat white pig, the Tamworth is the George Clooney of Pigdom. It is a descendant of the European wild boar, less that ferocious ancestor's truculence. In olden days the breed was known as the Irish Grazer, no doubt for its ginger coloring.

Not one to stint on my research, I visited a heritage pig farm as I wrote my first book featuring Priscilla. In upstate New York is located Flying Pigs Farm and its hospitable owner. Mike took me on an informal tour and answered my questions as we tromped over the hills (they felt more like mountains) to get to the field where he kept his pigs. The pint-sized piggies came a-running and a-squealing to greet us. They are very social animals, Mike said as the piggies nibbled on his jean-legs. They'll eat anything, he said, including trying to eat a cell phone that was dropped in the field. Their favorite treat are apples and Mike arranges to take the "windfalls" from a local orchard -- the piggies don't care if there's a brown spot or a mushy spot on their treats.

Much to my relief it turns out that everything I had Priscilla do in my book a Tamworth would do, including 'going on walk-about,' as the Aussies say. A Tamworth will take off to explore the countryside for a couple days and then he/she will return home to the farm. I came away from my tour with a greater admiration for pigs than ever before. And yes, I do have a collection of pig-mobilia.

That night my hubby and I went out for dinner at a local restaurant. I noted that on the menu they carried pork from Flying Pigs Farm. "Oh," I said to the young waitress, "I just came from there! The piggies are just the cutest things!" At which the waitress said she wished I hadn't told her that, covered her mouth and ran for the bathroom. Needless to say, I didn't order the pork.

Read more about M.E. (Marilyn) Kemp HERE.

Read about Death of A Dancing Master HERE.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Black rhino mother and calf

Here's two more reasons to contribute to Bowling for Rhinos. Contact your local zoo or go HERE.

If you can't go bowling, send a check to American Association of Zoo Keepers, Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR 97221-9704 Tell 'em I sent you!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Black rhinocerous

Black rhino. One of my favorite pictures from our recent trip to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.

What it takes to keep rhinos alive in today's world: an army of armed guards to keep poachers away.

You can help out by supporting an annual zoo keeper event: Bowling for Rhinos. If you live in Oregon, click HERE. If you live elsewhere, contact your local zoo. I've seen the results--this is a cause to support.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mystery dinner game: Hyenas, Tuskers, Chaos

Shortly before we left on our huge-deal safari to Kenya, one of the trip organizers suggested I dash off one of those role-playing mystery dinner games for a group activity. "You write mysteries, right?" Yes, but I'd never seen, much less played, such a game, and I was trying to draft the first 100 pages of the next zoo mystery so it could steep while we were gone, and meanwhile pack, finish a bathroom remodel, get typhoid shots, and arrange dog and house care and ... So I said, "Sure!"

I resuscitated my corporate communications chops and welded them to mystery conventions and worked my aging ass off. I stole freely from a game I bought and customized it for a zoo keeper group in Kenya. The final package had invitations with a rhino logo, instructions, name tags, clues in envelopes, and player booklets. The setting was, of course, a safari camp. The game had a cunning murder, wacky characters, a false confession, gunshots, and plenty more. Naturally there was no time for a rehearsal before we left.

One night it was raining too hard for a red-light game drive, so instead of lurching around in an open van looking for leopards and hippos, we gave the game a try. I was a little trepidatious. Not nearly enough, it turned out.

On the plus side, we were all pretty well lubricated--Tusker beer for many, wine for some. The women were keen to do it and argued over who got which of the four female parts. On the other hand, the men were not so enthusiastic. My husband and two other men agreed to give it a try after some arm-twisting, but we were a guy short.

We were staging this at the dining area of the camp and several of the Kenyan staff were on duty to open beers and so on. They thought this game sounded great.

One of them was John (not his real name), a tall young Maasai warrior (apparently all Maasai men are warriors), draped in his red robe and beaded head covering. He's learning the safari business from the ground up, waiting tables on his way to become a driver/guide, for which he will also need three years at the university in Nairobi. (The drivers had extensive training and knew everything.)

Aside from being a sweet, wide-eyed heart-throb (I say that in a motherly way), John was fearless, and he stepped in to take the last role.

I whipped up name tags for people who wanted a role and didn't have one--the murdered woman's ghost (a brilliant idea, if I say so myself), hyena, leopard, lion, bushbaby, giraffe (a non-speaking part), tortoise (also non-speaking), and so on. Everyone who wanted to get in on it had a part, even if it was mostly to growl at random intervals.

And so we commenced. But, honestly, I had no way to know that the illumination at this eco-resort would be dimmer than candle light. Reading 12 point type meant standing right next to one of the scarce little light bulbs. So we had a few issues with the script.

John had a key role, a big part. He speaks at least three languages (his tribe's, Kiswahili, and English), but reading English was a tiny bit challenging. He got the words, but some of the flavor fell overboard. We applauded and kept the momentum. People loved hamming up their character. They vamped and whined and boasted and sneered and mostly forgot the player booklets.

And every time really crucial clues were about to be revealed, the two bartenders, hunched under a blanket together, ran through the middle of the group whooping like hyenas (exactly like hyenas). This aroused the leopard (in her spotted pajamas) to snarl and claw at them which set off the rest of the animals. I think the giraffe stampeded and the tortoise may have been trampled. It was hard to tell in the dark.

After extended chaos and considerable hysteria, the murderer threw her hands in the air and shouted a confession. We cheered.

So all you mystery writers, learn from my tail. Tale.

* Need I say "Tuskers"?
* Set up characters to be either gender.
* Be ready for audience participation.
* Don't expect anything complicated to work at all the way you intended.

And bring a flashlight.


Those crazy hyenas

Taking our bows

Pictures thanks to Liz Quinlan

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Plot Brain: Part 2

Arrrgh! The plot's all laid out in a summary, but those first chapters don't quite work in the first draft. Or do they? Is it too slow and dull? Is the build-up to the real action essential and interesting or merely labored? Will my editor like it? Will anybody?

Perhaps if the description were trimmed, the dialog crisped up, the verbs more vivid, then it would be fine. But a cliche is solidifying, the one about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Structure, not style, is the issue. Probably.

Clearly the root problem is lack of talent. The great reviews on the first two books were flukes of an irrational industry, of minds infantilized by television and bad movies, or of kind-hearted strangers who couldn't bear to speak their real opinions. There is no hope, none at all, of lightening striking three times. I should learn to knit. The world would be better for it, rather than throwing ink and pixels at what is sure to remain a hopeless mess.

Is the wallowing over yet? It better be. This is taking up valuable time. Shoulder to the wheel: what am I trying to accomplish here, the core passion for this tale? Get away from the keyboard and pace in circles until that comes into focus once again. That summary is a jigsaw puzzle where each piece can fit in several places, but some may be missing. Mess with the major scenes. Challenge each one--whether it's needed, where it belongs. Harder: what else could happen? Rearrange, reinvent.

Brain: do your thing. Think, dammit, think!

Is there something wrong with wallowing?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Plot brain

I am back from a wonderful trip to Kenya and Amsterdam, still getting caught up. More later on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (pictures!) and Amsterdam's city zoo, Artis.

I am settling in to the first draft of zoo mystery #3 and thinking about "the creative process."

A friend informs me that working on a PhD dissertation makes you stupid. That's what she's doing, and she's missing exits on the freeway, forgetting to buy milk, and tripping over her own furniture.

I understand completely. It's exactly the same for me. When my head is filled with a complex and challenging project (e.g., zoo mystery #3), it gets full. The cortex doesn't seem able to muscle the door on that topic closed and open the door to regular life. The dog reminds me that it's almost noon and I haven't fed him yet. The husband wonders why dinner is at 8:00 PM instead of the normal 6:30 PM. I send out a lot of "belated" birthday cards.

It sounds like chemo brain, but trust me, it's not. The cortex LIKES to be exercised. It feels good to be smacked by inspiration, to prune a sentence until it is shapely and tight, to grasp what that character will do next. Even as I forget the shopping list and park in front of the wrong grocery store, I feel smarter.

Go figure. It'll be good for you.

We're fuzzy, but our horns are sharp.
Japanese serow at Woodland Park Zoo

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

MS Word for Authors: Hepl with Speling

MS Word is anxious about your spelling, and for good reason. Many of us are rotten spellers as well as fumble-fingered. Word can help us if we approach this in a spirit of cooperation.

MS Word also worries about your grammar, but has less to contribute there since Word spent the time in Miss Pluperfect's English class flirting with PowerPoint and making fun of Excel. Excel refused to talk to anyone about decent English ever after and this explains why its help system is so incomprehensible (although better now than it used to be). But I digress.

Word is going to check your spelling unless you order it not to. Words that trouble it will show up underlined in red. Right-click and Word will offer alternative spellings in a range of relevance. (Control and click for Macs.)

If you hate the red underlines in general or because Word is flagging words that are spelled just fine, you have choices. 1) Learn to spell; 2) Turn spell check off; 3) Teach Word to spell. We will skip Choice 1 as hopeless and address the others.

The Options menu in MS Word allows you to turn off spell check (and grammar check) or to tailor them to your preferences. Take a look, but read about Choice 3 before you yield to irritation and go turning everything off. (Use the help system to find Options if its not obvious from the menus.)

Choice 3 is to tell Word that whatever it has underlined in red as deeply flawed is in fact just peachy the way it is. Right-click (Macs: Control-click) in the character's name or Polish town or dialect that you want Word to accept as fine. Select Ignore if you want a pass on only this instance, Ignore All for the whole document, and Add to Dictionary for every document you will ever create with this copy of MS Word.

Needless to say, you should be cautious with the Add to Dictionary option. "Mamah" or "likker" may not work in all your oeuvre, so perhaps better to stick with "Ignore All" rather than accepting it for everything forever. On the other hand, if you are writing a series and protagonist "Ivana" is flagged every time, go for it.

You can also go to Spelling & Grammar and use the dialog box to click through all the flagged words one after another instead of catching them on the fly.

Teach MS Word your idiosyncratic words, then take those red underlines seriously. Spelling matters if you want to come across as professional and competent. Find those words underlined in red and review the suggestions. You could be wrong, and Word could be right. This can save you embarrassment and possibly humiliation. Use all the tools you available to do the job right.

Picky, picky, picky.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book review: Stolen World

What is it with obsessive collectors? Most of us collect something or other--salt and pepper shakers, British stamps, Hawaiian coins, cheese cake recipes--but we don't risk our freedom, our marriages, or our financial security to possess one more. Some people do and Stolen World, by Jennie Erin Smith (Crown Publishers, 2011)is about people who obsess about reptiles. More specifically, it's about men who smuggle them into the US to sell them to other collectors and who hope to achieve fame and fortune doing so. The "fame" is status in the world of reptile collectors and seems to be almost as strong a motive as the money.

Smith's background is in journalism, but the book reads like a novel. The personalities, adventures, successes, and failures of smugglers Hank Molt, Tom Crutchfield, Edmund Celebucki, and the infamous Anson Wong are recounted in a crisp, calm style. Smith doesn't judge or lecture or make free with exclamation marks because she doesn't need to. She lets these peoples' words, actions, and court records speak for themselves and they surely do. Persistent law-breaking motivated by a yen for adventure, by a compulsion to collect the rarest species, and, of course, by money make for a page-turner, a very good read.

Stolen World is surprisingly short on documentation considering the chronicles of illegal activities undertaken by real people, some of them still living. But what she vividly and engagingly describes is consistent with other books on the same subject--The Lizard King and The Last Tortoise, for two, the latter previously reviewed in this blog.

Smith describes how lax zoos were in their animal acquisitions in the 60s and 70s. Until the feds and their own industry cracked down, reptile curators in zoos were a major market for the animal importers, regardless of local laws or the mortality rate. (I saw a bit of ethically dubious animal acquisition myself when I was a new zoo keeper in the '70s.) When zoos began to clean up their act as a result of stronger US and international law--and public embarrassment--private collectors became the customer base of the reptile market. Smith also chronicles the rise of captive breeding of reptiles, which accounts for the bulk of the US market today. Go to the TRAFFIC website, however, and you will find that smuggling wild-caught reptiles is hardly a thing of the past.

A personal note: What I found truly dismaying is that many of these men claim to "love" reptiles. What kind of love pays locals to pull wild animals out of their habitat, jams them into false-bottomed crates to ship them thousands of miles, and sells the survivors to people who very likely cannot keep them alive for more than a few months? What kind of "love" scorns conservation efforts for the species they desire? Perhaps in their older years, some of these hard-drinking, thoroughly treacherous guys stopped to consider the body count they were personally responsible for, but one is permitted to doubt.

Read another review from a knowledgeable person here. The "herpers" seem to have reacted strongly to Stolen World. Read some of their comments (the word "venomous" does come to mind) here. You will find them in keeping with the people described in this book.

Then read the book yourself. It's a fascinating journey through the intersection of psychology, commerce, and biology.

Here's how you can buy Stolen World and benefit Herpdigest, a free reptile news digest, at the same time:
1) Send a check to Herpdigest/Allen Salzberg/67-87 Booth Street -5B/Forest Hills, NY 11375. Make the check out to Herpdigest.
2) By Paypal - the account is asalzberg@herpdigest.org
3) By credit card, Master or Visa, Discover and Amex, only, send credit card number, expiration date, billing and shipping address to asalzberg@herpdigest.org. Include those 3 numbers from the back of the credit card.
4) By phone at 1-718-275-2190 11 A.M.- 6 P.M Eastern Standard Time (NYC.) If not in, leave message.

Captive bred reptiles at an Oregon reptile event.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

MS Word for Authors: Get lost, italic! You, too, bold!

A tiny tip just in from our far-flung correspondence (no, not correspondents).

To easily get rid of bold, italic, and/or underline formatting, highlight the offending text, then hit Control + space. Back to normal! Yay!

This seems to work the same (Control + space) for PCs and for Macs.

Bold? I know a thing or two about bold.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book review: Dog On It by Spencer Quinn

I'm not usually a fan of mysteries that humanize animals. Our species has a long history of interpreting animals as limited humans--they must have our motives, our values, our sensory ability. This leads to grievous errors in understanding our fellow species. When ethology was a new and exciting science, we were amazed at what could be learned by simply shutting up and watching without expectation or judgment, then trying to figure out why animals do what they do. In my zoo mysteries, I present the critters as authentically as I can, with all the superpowers nature bestowed on them and nothing more.

But I'm going soft and making an exception. Spencer Quinn wrote Dog On It in the first-person voice of a big, goofy, K-9 flunk-out named Chet who is partner to private investigator Bernie Little. Yes, Chet understands human speech and far too much of our behavior. On the realistic side, his nose rules, he's obsessed with food and easily distracted by a cat or golf ball, and he doesn't solve crimes as much as enable Bernie's efforts.

Bernie is an appealing sleuth, the other characters are clear and distinct, and the plot and romantic sub-plot have sufficient twists and turns. A teenage girl goes missing--runaway or snatched? Does her father know more than he's saying, or not? It's set in what is apparently a fictional version of Southern California or maybe Arizona.

The real fun of this book, however, is the amiable style and Chet. Charming. A lovely read.

I liked it, too, says Murphy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

MS Word for Authors: Bigger and Better

Most of us set up our pages with a 12 point font, probably Times New Roman. If you find that this is hard to read, you can easily enlarge it. No, don't go for 14 or 16 points! Instead, "zoom" the screen until it is a comfortable size. Then you won't need to remember to change the font size back to 12 point before you ship off the manuscript. The change won't affect printing, either.

To zoom, go to View. This is somewhere in your top toolbar. In more recent versions, a slider bar can also be found in the lower right corner. See what Zoom is set to and make it bigger. Inspect the results and adjust as needed.

And, by the way, no where is it written that you must draft in double line spacing. Instead of 2, try setting line spacing to 1.5 or even 1.15. I like this because I can see more text on the screen. This change is one you do need to remember to fix before you submit!

This tree kangaroo wants to read over your shoulder.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Book review: Man in the Woods

Bear with me, mystery fans and animal people, as we take a walk on the literary side. Scott Spencer's Man in the Woods (HarperCollins, 2010) is a novel about a crime, and a dog is an important character, providing both the inciting incident and the denouement. Those characteristics qualify it for this blog. (Thank you to Sandra Parshall, author of the Rachel Goddard series, for recommending it.)

Spencer is a heavyweight, author of the wrenching Endless Love (don't hold the infamous movie against it), A Ship Made of Paper, and other well-received novels. His online biographies are cryptic, but reveal that he has taught writing at Columbia University and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, among other venues.

And write he can. Paul is a carpenter committed to an authentic, honest life. He finds a man abusing a dog at an isolated park. Their interchange escalates to a fist fight, and Paul's punch to his throat kills the other man. Abruptly a murderer, Paul takes the dog and flees for home.

"The brown dog sitting next to him, whom Paul has already named Shep, is salivating anxiously and shedding fur at a prodigious rate. The dog is clearly falling apart, but he is trying to keep his dignity. He is like a minor character in a Mafia movie who knows he is being taken for a ride from which he is never going to return, but who has for so long subscribed to the code that ordains his very undoing that it is beneath him, or beyond him, to protest."

We watch as Paul struggles to move past his new knowledge of himself, aided by his beautiful lover Kate, a successful author of a Christian book. Her young daughter, Paul's best friend, and Kate herself find their lives slowly distorted by his blood sin. Spencer uses multiple points of view to show police searching the cul de sacs of the victim's life, led and misled by patient sleuthing and by information discovered by chance, as well as the perspectives of a few who knew the victim.

Paul and Kate are concerned parents, successful in their work, generous to their friends and relatives, thoughtful and kind. Does that matter? Does right living offer a pass on murder? Spencer engages us in the aftermath of crime, exploring the implications that conventional crime fiction usually eschews.

I have but one quibble about this fine book. In a vivid, sad scene, Shep discovers a snake in the house. It's a large but harmless rat snake. Kate is terrified. Paul, who loves the woods and engages in the natural world with joy, feels he has no choice but to kill it and does so, with reluctance. The dead snake is tossed into the bushes and doesn't come up again in the story. What have we here? A heavy-handed metaphor about Eden? Spencer is surely too subtle for that. A second proof that Paul comes up short on problem solving and turns to violence? My reading of Paul is that he would have the wit to pin the snake, grab it behind the head, and toss it outside alive. Perhaps that is the point--he didn't take less lethal action. But he acted like a city person and not the woodsman we are led to believe he is. (If you are snake-averse, skip pages 143-147, but don't skip the book.)

The cliche "complex, fully-rounded characters" is where Spencer begins. Read The Man in The Woods for the wonderful people, for their terrible dilemma, and for the gorgeous language.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Murphy's Diary

8:30 AM Wake up. Hear people moving around. Go back to sleep.

9:00 AM Hear kibble hit food bowl. Think hard. Worth it? Need to pee. No rush.

9:15 AM Crawl out from bed under armchair. Inspect food bowl. Plain kibble? Walk away. Garnished with bits of cheese rind or a dab of gravy? Eat food to reward people. At least they’re trying.

9:20 AM Accept petting and scratching.

9:25 AM First squirrel patrol. Potty time. Raining again.

9:30 AM Time for walk. Nudge woman with nose.

9:31-10:06 AM Nudge. Nudge. Nudge. Takes patience and persistence. It's for her own good.

10:07 AM OMG! Woman is putting on shoes! OMG! OMG!

10:10 AM WTF? Woman is turning on computer. Stare at her with deep disappointment. Bad woman, bad bad. Nudge her with nose. Nudge again. Put front paws on her knees to demonstrate urgency.

10:25 AM OMG! Woman is putting on jacket! Woman has plastic bag! Woman has THE BALL!

10:27 AM Phone rings. Woman answers. Show woman extent of despair by racing in tight circles.

10:35 AM Woman FINALLY hangs up phone. Walks to hall closet! Takes out THE LEASH!

10:36 AM Begin Happy Dance. Leap and frolic. Chew on leash. Yip and prance. Race about. Woman says, “Sit! Stay! Hold still, dammit!” Continue Happy Dance.

10:40 AM Pause. Leash is ON.

10:41-11:30 AM Exercise the woman: walking for her lower body, throwing ball for upper body. Exhausting to keep retrieving ball, but necessary for her health. As usual, she quits too soon. Come home.

11:32 AM Nap. Life is good.

It's hard work to be a responsible dog.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book review: Tigerland by Eric Dinerstein

Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations, by Eric Dinerstein, makes me want to get myself born again and relive my life as a field biologist. Ah, to spend my days tracking tigers, observing bats, pulling off leeches... I missed my calling.

Dinerstein is Vice President for Science at World Wildlife Fund, US. That's a big, relatively well-funded, well-respected conservation organization active in many countries. Which results in some real limits on Dinerstein's candor, alas, about fellow conservationists. And he shows a great deal about his work, but reveals nothing about his personal life.

Within these limitations, this is a fun and fascinating read about the inner workings of conservation research in many parts of the world. Tigers, bats, snow leopards... He writes about forgotten places such as New Caledonia and the heart-breaking task of protecting its rare plants. Each chapter is a personal experience of a different place.

In addition to making me wish to start my professional life over, Tigerland inspires me to reach for my checkbook. He really makes the case that the people out there in the heat, the dirt, and the endless meetings trying to save the natural world from humanity deserve our support.

Conservation is sloooow work.

Monday, January 3, 2011

MS Word for Authors: Cut & Paste

Here is a tiny tip that might improve your new year a tad. We authors have reason now and again to copy text from a web page, such as to keep a Word file of all our online reviews. One way to do this is simply to highlight the desired text and use the key commands or menu to Copy. Go to your MS Word document, e.g., "My Reviews," and use the key command or menu to Paste. Done!

But the formatting is goofed up. It doesn't look like the usual Normal style text--the font, font size, and other formatting is weird. You need to highlight the text (again) and assign Normal style to it and generally fuss with it.

As an alternative, don't use the standard Paste command. Instead, find the little Paste menu (Vista) or look under File (Windows XP). Select Paste Special. Then choose Unformatted Text. The website text lands in Word without the HTML formatting. Word has no idea what to do with it except to assign it Normal style. Which is what you wanted anyway.

Paste Special is not what you want if you need the graphics on the web page. Use Paste Special/Unformatted Text if all you want is the words.

Experiment with a web page, using both paste methods. Sometimes you will want Paste, sometimes Paste Special will work better.

I'm normal AND I'm special and I'll peck your eyes out if you don't watch it.