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Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Dragon Keeper, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

 A: I was on a business trip in London in December of 2006 when I read an article in the paper about a Komodo dragon reproducing via parthenogenesis at the Chester Zoo. Since it was so close to Christmas, the article made a lot of overt comparisons to the Virgin Mary, and the tone of the entire piece was very light. It was clearly intended as entertainment. I immediately ripped the article out of the paper and read it obsessively in my hotel room over the next few days. I knew there was a much bigger story there, but I had no idea it could be a novel. A few weeks later, I was watching The Daily Show back at home when they aired a clip from the Chester Zoo. The dragons had hatched, and one of the zookeepers told the cameraman that it was the best day of her life. Jon Stewart made some joke about how pathetic this woman was, and in that moment I knew I had to write this story. I was fascinated by this woman, by the revelation that animals had begun reproducing without mates, and by the idea of a love story between a zookeeper and a dragon.

I wrote the book during my last two years in the Hamline MFA program, and it became my thesis. Since I have a full-time job, I wrote mostly during my lunch breaks and before classes at night. After I graduated, I revised the book two more times in the two years that followed, while working on other projects as well.

Q: Have you ever worked at a zoo?

 A: No, I never have. My zookeeper abilities don’t extend much beyond feeding a cat. My work life has been largely spent in corporations, and that’s the employer that ultimately came to the page. The Zoo of America is, of course, completely fictional, and I began thinking of it as corporate America, as in: “How would corporate America behave if it owned a zoo?” The actual zoos I was lucky enough to visit while researching the book were conscientious, humane institutions that bear little resemblance to the Zoo of America.

Q: Are you trying to say that zoos are a bad institution?

A: I didn’t want the book to be strictly pro-zoo or anti-zoo, but I did want to raise questions that we don’t always think about when we visit zoos. As the planet’s current conquering species, what is our responsibility to the other creatures who live here? We’ve come a long way from the roadside menageries, but do we have the right to capture and display animals for entertainment or education? What if, like Komodos, the species is losing its natural habitat? There are a lot of issues to consider, and I hope I’ve been able to introduce some of those questions for readers.

Q: What sort of research did you do to write the book?

A: Although I would have loved to travel to Indonesia, my budget dictated that most research had to be conducted through reading. Because Westerners first encountered the Komodo dragon relatively recently, there aren’t a great deal of academic studies available. I read the ones I could find, including Walter Auffenberg’s definitive 1981 book based on his research while living on Komodo Island.

I also wanted to get a sense of zoo life, without getting too focused on the habits of any one particular zoo. I visited the Memphis Zoo in 2007 and was fortunate enough to interview the curator of reptiles as well as both keepers who looked after their two Komodo dragons. At one point I mentioned Auffenberg’s comment that early expeditioners thought the dragons were deaf because they didn’t react to gunshots. The curator had never heard that and seemed incredulous of the fact. Later he showed me why. When we were behind the Komodo exhibit, he opened the top half of the door that led inside and said, “Jeff!” Jeff, the eight-foot-long Komodo, immediately turned 180 degrees and barreled for the door. The curator and I had to retract our heads and slam the door shut before Jeff could rear up over it into the hallway. “He can hear,” the curator said, grinning.

Q: Is parthenogenesis really possible?

A: Yes, it is, and there are documented cases of parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. When I happened to find that article about Flora, the Komodo at the Chester Zoo who reproduced via parthenogenesis in 2006, I was immediately fascinated by the idea of sexual animals reproducing without mates. In the course of The Dragon Keeper, we learn that Jata’s offspring are even more unique than Flora’s. What happens with Jata specifically has never been known to occur in Komodos, but it seemed to me like the next logical evolutionary step, although I’m as much at a loss to explain it as Meg and everyone else in the book. To me, it’s still somewhat of a miracle.

Q: Are there really Komodo dragons like Jata?

A: Yes! It was very important to me to portray Komodo dragons as accurately as I possibly could. I researched the species extensively, and in several of the studies I found references to a Komodo dragon named Bubchen who lived in the Frankfurt Zoo in the early twentieth century. By all accounts, she was an extraordinary animal who became completely acclimated to living with humans. Many of Jata’s behaviors are based on what I could find out about Bubchen, and I couldn’t resist including a small tribute to her in the book as well.

Q: Would you describe The Dragon Keeper as a love story?

A: Certainly Meg is embroiled in a love triangle for much of the story, but ultimately I’ve always seen this as a love story between Meg and Jata. Sometimes the perception is that a human-animal bond is simpler than relationships between humans, but I’ve always thought it raises many compelling questions. Why does this person choose to give their affection to an animal instead of someone within their own species? And then you have to look at the animals’ side of the relationship. Are they even capable of returning affection? What are the circumstances of their lives that have brought them into close contact with humans instead of others of their own species? In Jata’s case, you also have to understand that she’s an alpha predator, and her instincts will always be at war with any attachment she is capable of developing on Meg.

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Farmed fish may be safe for humans but not for the oceans

So it looks like the FDA is going to approve the sale and consumption genetically altered salmon.

The AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon contains a growth hormone from the Chinook salmon, which causes it to grow twice as quickly as regular Atlantic salmon. By the way, you really should check out the company’s website; this is a company concerned about technology and intellectual property and the bottom line, not animal welfare.

Here is a photo that compares one of their salmon (background) to a normal Atlantic salmon (foregound).

Genetically modified salmon

Even if I did eat fish, I can’t imagine eating something that has been genetically modified to get fat quickly. Do we really know the long-term effects of “get fat fast” fish on human bodies?

But that’s not what I’m most concerned about.

I’m most concerned about the impact on the oceans of farmed fish.

The FDA said the these salmon “posed little risk to the environment.”

I find this assessment hard to believe, because the FDA doesn’t regulate the oceans. It can’t know the repercussions of an expanding salmon industry on the oceans around the world.

Farmed fish typically are fed food from the ocean. That is, fisherman suck up or net vast quantities of krill and sardines and other small creatures to feed to the salmon.

Yes, it is rather ironic that we must fish for food to feed to fish.

Already there are numerous signs that the overfishing of the oceans is having a negative impact on creatures that depend on these fish. Like the Magellanic and African penguins, which now must swim farther from their nests to find food for their young. The reason they’re traveling further is because the fishing boats are taking the food that is closest to shore.

And what if the farmed fish industry continues to grow? What will the impact on penguins be then? I doubt the FDA takes penguins into account when it approves genetically modified salmon. But it should. Until the regulators of the world take a more holistic approach to the fishing industry, we will continue to deplete the oceans.

Everything is connected.

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Book Review: The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

I recently revisited Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—the original edition published by a socialist newspaper in 1905, not the shorter version published by Doubleday, Page (after Macmillan ultimately rejected it) in 1906.

It wasn’t surprising to see what had been left out of the original book (though the censored version was horrific enough) and I’m glad I had the chance to read the book in its entirety, as it was meant to be read. Most interesting to me, reading it for the first time as a vegan, is how much of an animal-rights book it is.

One odd thing that animal-rights activists are often asked is why they don’t help humans before animals. Animal Liberation author Peter Singer says it best: “There is nothing to stop those who devote their time and energy to human problems from joining the boycott of the products of agribusiness cruelty. It takes no more time to be a vegetarian than to eat animal flesh. In fact…those who claim to care about the well-being of human beings and the preservation of our environment should become vegetarians for that reason alone.”

And in The Jungle, Sinclair likewise shows us links between animal rights and human rights. There are few industries more abusive to human workers than factory farms. The undercover footage we see of workers abusing animals is appalling, and of course there is never any justification for this sort of cruelty—but would this happen if these workers had decent conditions in which to work, if they were treated with any dignity at all themselves? It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to know that abuse only leads to more abuse. (This interview with an undercover investigator by Our Hen House and Peter Orner’s wonderful book Underground America both reveal a lot about what the humans in this industry endure.)

And Sinclair’s The Jungle, too, portrays it well. Yet while things have certainly improved when it comes to food safety, reading The Jungle brings to mind some of the human and animal abuse that still goes on today.

This passage, for example, could have been written about a factory farm of the twenty-first century: “That day they had killed about four thousand cattle, and these cattle had come in freight trains, from far states, and some of them had got hurt. There were some with broken legs and some with gored sides; there were some that had died, from what cause no one could say; and they were all to be disposed of here in darkness and silence.”

Sinclair, while focused on the plight of the poverty-stricken immigrant workers, was not at all blind to the suffering of the animals. “Each one of these pigs was a separate creature,” he wrote. “Some were white pigs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; some were old, some were young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart’s desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway.”

It’s impossible not to be moved by this book, and even if you’ve read it before, it’s worth revisiting. As groundbreaking as it was back in the early twentieth century, The Jungle still feels groundbreaking today, for it tackles issues that are, sadly, all-too-relevant: the abuse of factory workers, and the abuse of animals at the hands not only of the workers but even more so of the corporations that run these factories. As Sinclair writes, “… murder it was that went on there upon the killing-floor, systematic, deliberate and hideous murder—and there was no other word for it, and nothing else to be said about it. They were slaughtering men out there, just as certainly as they were slaughtering cattle; they were grinding the bodies and souls of them, and turning them into dollars and cents.”

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Book Review: Mark Twain’s Book of Animals

I recently discovered (and ordered) a book that focuses on Mark Twain and his writings and views about animals. Edited by Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, focuses on the many ways Twain not only wrote about animals but advocated on their behalf.

Here’s an article that summarizes the book. And an excerpt:

Fishkin was inspired to undertake the project after realizing how central animals were to Twain’s works and that his views on animals revealed a great deal about how he viewed people.

Fishkin was surprised by what she found during the course of her research. “ I had not realized when I embarked on this project that Twain was the most prominent American of his era to throw his weight behind the animal welfare movement.”

Mark Twain was greatly influenced by the ideas that Charles Darwin laid out in his groundbreaking publication, The Descent of Man (1871), a book that “startled the world,” as Twain put it. She examined copious notes that Twain wrote in the margins of his copy of The Descent of Man (housed with the Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library) and analyzed their significance.

In particular, Fishkin found that that Twain was affected by Darwin’s idea that man and animal were in reality, much more similar than people liked to believe. “The topic he was dealing with was emotional and intellectual continuities between humans and non-human animals. Darwin wrote that the lower animals were capable of experiencing the same emotions as people and that they were capable of rudimentary reasoning, as well. ”

I look forward to reading this book.

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Book Review: Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

 An inside look at the life of an outsider

Elizabeth Costello is a challenging novel, just like the namesake character. This is a book that alternates between brief scenes between mother and son, mother and ex-lover, mother in purgatory — and extended lectures on many topics.

Including animal rights.

In one lecture which began as an essay — The Lives of Animals — Costello lectures on the cruelty of killing animals. It is a lecture not exactly met with enthusiasm and it’s an experience that many vegans and vegetarians have probably shared at one point or another.

The experience of an outsider.

Costello is an outsider, partly because of her trade and mostly because of her lifestyle.

Coetzee has written about outsiders for many years now. Based purely on his relative silence when it comes to book promotion, my guess is that he has a great deal of experience in this area.

Is he a vegan? Vegetarian? I have no idea. All I do know is that he has captured in this book a feeling that resonates with me.

Amazon

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