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Where Song Began

Sulphur-crested cockatoos in Sydney

What I most missed after a trip to Australia last year wasn’t the beaches or the local accents. It was the sounds of the birds.

The plaintive cries of the Australian ravens, the laughing kookaburras, and the screeching cockatoos. I realized after I returned home that I never had associated Australia with exotic birds. This is the land of the kangaroo and the koala and so many other marsupials.

But it is the birds that brought me to this amazing book: Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World, by Tim Low.

Australia is not some avian backwater,  as early European visitors widely assumed. Settlers introduced starlings and other species in an effort to introduce songbirds to the land. But it wasn’t that Australia didn’t have birds that could sing, it was that the Europeans weren’t fully listening.

Thanks to DNA, we now know that Australia is the wellspring of the planet’s songbirds. And it wasn’t until the second half of the last century that Australians themselves began to appreciate that songbirds evolved in their backyards. And it’s not only songbirds that Australia gave the word but parrots.

New South Wales has 33 species of parrot — and the Sydney region alone boasts more species than most countries on the planet.

Australia is also home to the largest concentration of honeyeater species. And why? Because the country gave us trees that are actually very large flowers that give off stupendous amounts of nectar. These are eucalyptus trees. In Australia, it’s not just the bees that pollinate — it is birds.

Back to the songbirds, one of the most ancient songbirds is the lyrbird, native to Australia.

I found this video of a lyrebird and it is truly unbelievable to see — and tragic when you hear the final sounds the bird echoes.

This is a dense book that I would advise only for those who are eager to be overwhelmed by bird species (with each passing chapter I realized I knew less and less about birds). But it’s also a beautiful book written by an author who not only loves Australia’s many avian species but is doing his part to help protect them.

Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World

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Book Review: Penguins in the Desert by Eric Wagner

As a former volunteer for Dee Boersma at the Punta Tombo Magellanic colony in Argentina, I was especially eager to read Eric Wagner’s Penguins in the Desert, in which he recounts the six months he and his wife, El, spent among the penguins in 2008. Two years earlier, my husband, John Yunker, and I spent a week at Punta Tombo, and we walked through many of the same places, counted many of the same penguins, got to know the colony’s beloved Turbo, and probably stayed in the same trailer Wagner and his wife shared two years later.

Yet Wagner’s six months at the colony was an enviably and admirably longer period of time during which he and El, too, spent fourteen-hour days in the field and got early morning wake-up calls from the penguin living under the trailer. Wagner’s description — “At times, he sounded like he was directly under my pillow, his bill aimed at my ear” — was not only spot-on but brought me back to this magical and complicated place.

I was also eager to read a nonfiction account of a volunteer’s time at Punta Tombo — as fiction writers, both John’s and my experiences eventually ended up being parts of novels, The Tourist Trail and My Last Continent, respectively — and I very much enjoyed revisiting the place and the experience through Wagner’s nonfiction lens. Yet this isn’t a book solely for those familiar with this part of the world; it will appeal to a range of readers, from travelers to penguin lovers to anyone interested in conservation.

Dee Boersma, who holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science at the University of Washington and is founder and director of the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, is arguably the best-known penguin expert in the world, her name as synonymous with penguins as Jane Goodall’s is with chimpanzees. Boersma has studied the penguins at Punta Tombo for thirty-five years, and her passion, tenacity, and vast experience come through in these pages. As Wagner writes early in the book, “Her [UW] lectures were memorable for the energetic brazenness with which she could hold forth on the way things ought to be. It was inconsistent with the objectivity I thought the dictum of science, but Dee was unapologetic … ‘You can’t listen to everything I’m telling you and not feel anything,’ she had said.”

This is one Boersma’s many gifts: translating science — and especially the precarious lives of penguins — in ways that all of us can relate to. As Wagner notes, Boersma once described penguins this way in an interview: “These birds are curious. They walk upright. They dress well. They’re highly social. They know their neighbors.”

Getting to know the penguins of Punta Tombo makes it all the more difficult to learn that this colony has declined in population by more than 40 percent and is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world. Wagner details the birds’ challenges in ways that are highly personal — and this is a huge strength of the book. Like Boersma, Wagner makes it impossible not to fall in love with these birds, and to care about their fate in an uncertain world.

As Wagner notes in the prologue, most people think of penguins and “see a cathedral of ice and snow … a forbidding landscape thousands of miles from anywhere.” Penguins in the Desert focuses on those who live among “sand and dust and dirt … blazing heat … a couple of hours from a city, eminently reachable on any old summer afternoon.” And while John and I merely counted penguins as volunteers, and helped measure and weigh a few, Wagner and his wife did all of this and much more, including tagging them and even performing a necropsy. They witnessed a lot more as well: They saw chicks grow up and fledge; they observed one penguin couple adopt another’s egg and raise the chick as their own; and, sadly, they encountered a great many dead chicks (on average, about 40 percent of chicks starve to death; some years it can be as many as 85 percent).

While 40 percent is a staggering statistic, it is still a number, and though Wagner has a scientific background, it is his non-scientific details that are most affecting. “We soon can tell which chicks are not long for this earth … The ones that gain almost no weight between our visits, or even lose a few grams. The ones that beg in raspy, thin voices, while their parent can do little … The ones whose feet become shriveled and translucent, the ones whose thin bones we can feel through the sagging skin of their chests. The ones who lie quietly in the dust, breathing shallowly, waiting for the end.”

Perhaps most engaging of all are Wagner’s descriptions of the birds that can only come from the firsthand contact that researchers must endure. “ … as I wrestle [the penguin] into submission, I realize there are certain things you cannot know about the Magellanic penguin, cannot understand, unless you are trying to restrain one between your thighs…For example: A penguin’s chest all but bursts with thick slabs of muscle, and the flippers … are solid bone. His bill, which is clacking away perilously close to my fingers, is heavy, black, ridged, and very sharp…The red of his eyes, too, can look surprisingly demonic.” Accompanying the text are thirty black-and-white photos, including one of Wagner’s bite-scarred hand.

Despite the many details and stories that bring our empathy to these creatures, the science is not neglected; readers learn about the research being done and what Boersma and her team are learning about penguin behavior — satellite tags, for example, show where penguins forage for food and how far they have to go (from 250 up to 700 miles away from the colony). The bad news is that the farther the penguins have to travel for food, the higher the risk their chicks will starve before they return to feed them. Wagner notes, “If the satellite tags paint a grim picture in some ways, however, then they also point to a way to lessen conflicts between human fishers and penguins, who are often in search of the same species of fish. The more we claim for ourselves, the less we leave for penguins and other seabirds.”

In 2015, a Marine Protected Area was established around the colony, covering thirty-seven miles of coastline and extending three feet into the ocean. It was a victory for the penguins, but “just a postage stamp” of what Boersma and her colleague were hoping for. It’s an example of what conservation can do, and a reminder that it has to begin somewhere and often in baby steps. In the mid-80s, Boersma, along with Argentine students, began to count penguins who were showing up dead on shore due to oil, which causes them to lose their insulation and leads to certain death from hypothermia or starvation because they can’t go to sea to feed. Boersma and her students realized that more than 40,000 penguins were dying each year due to the ballast being released from large ships. Boersma and her students presented their research for years until finally, in 1997, the government of Chubut province moved the shipping lanes farther offshore, out of the penguins’ paths. In the years since, Boersma and her colleagues followed up, counting fewer and fewer oiled birds until one year they found none at all.

Finally, I was thrilled to see so many words devoted to Turbo, famous among Punta Tombo researchers and a little famous to others as well. He inspired the character of Diesel in The Tourist Trail, and Admiral Byrd in My Last Continent — and most readers find it hard to believe that these fictional birds were inspired by a penguin who actually exists. Turbo is an odd penguin who tried to nest under a turbo truck (hence his name) before realizing it didn’t make a good nest — but even though he moved on to nest in bushes like the other penguins, he never found a mate. Instead, he knocks on the door of the researchers’ house with his beak, walks in, and does flipper dances (a courtship ritual) with the humans. He is the rare penguin who not only doesn’t scamper away from humans but who welcomes affection. “It isn’t that he thinks he is a human,” Wagner writes. “Rather, he thinks we are penguins … All the things we wish we could do with all the penguins but do not dare, Turbo lets us do to him. We coo over him and caress the firm pelt of his feathers. We scratch the back of his neck as he closes his eyes in pleasure.”

I’ve been on Dee Boersma’s mailing list for a dozen years now, and the first thing I always look for is news of Turbo. He is now thirteen years old, still a bachelor, and still friendly with all the researchers. (Click here to join the mailing list for updates on Turbo, and to learn more about how you can help penguin conservation.)

Penguins in the Desert may be specific to one species of penguin, but it offers a glimpse into the important work of conservation, with insights that extend beyond this region of Patagonia. It’s also a tribute to Dee Boersma, a pioneer in conservation and penguin studies, and a call to action to protect our oceans before it’s too late to save the creatures who depend on it for survival.

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American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

In 2006, a wolf was born in Yellowstone National Park. Named O-Six, she would grow into a fierce fighter, doting mother, and merciful leader. She’d be beloved by the park’s wolf watchers and a favorite of tourists who flocked to the park hoping to catch sight of her. Upon her death, she would be celebrated in the New York Times as “the most famous wolf in the world.”

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by award-winning journalist Nate Blakeslee is a riveting account of O-Six’s life and untimely death. It is also the story of humanity’s timeless attempt to bend nature to its will, no matter the cost.

The backdrop of American Wolf is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, beginning in the mid-1990s. It was a move heralded by scientists and conservationists and loathed by the hunters and ranchers who hunt and farm in the communities surrounding the park. In a case of unintended consequences, the reintroduction project was made necessary by a campaign begun in the 1800s, to kill off the country’s wolves, a campaign so successful that by the 1920s, the wolf population in the continental United States had been decimated. The last two pups believed to be born in Yellowstone were killed by park rangers in 1926.

This mass slaughter occurred in the name of wildlife management, a science that, Blakeslee writes, was in its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Park officials believed—inaccurately it turned out—that killing the wolves would preserve the park’s prey population. “They didn’t realize that wolves and elk had coexisted in Yellowstone for thousands of years, that the two species had in fact evolved in tandem with each other—which explained why the elk could run just as fast as the wolf but no faster… The massive size of the moose, the nimbleness of the white-tailed deer, the uncanny balance of the bighorn sheep—the architect of these and countless other marvels was the wolf.”

With wolves absent from Yellowstone, the park’s ecosystem was thrown off balance. “[The] ungulate population in the park exploded, and the quality of the range quickly began to deteriorate. Over grazed hillsides eroded, and stream banks denuded of woody shrubs began to crumble, damaging prime trout habitat. Elk browsing at their leisure, undisturbed by predators, decimated stands of young aspen and willow. Too many animals on the landscape brought starvation and disease.”

The goal of the Wolf Project was to restore the park’s ecosystem, and it has—beyond even its most ardent advocates’ expectations. But through the years, the debate over the wolves’ presence hasn’t abated. It has grown more vitriolic as wolves, wandering beyond Yellowstone’s borders, prey on ranchers’ livestock and kill the elk hunters prize. Wolves, Blakeslee writes, had become “one of those polarizing issues like abortion or gun control or war in the Middle East, about which the country [can] not seem to reach a consensus.”

It is in this hostile environment we meet O-Six and the wolf watchers who, dawn to dusk, 365-days a year, chronicle the lives of Yellowstone’s wolves. Among the watchers is naturalist Rick McIntyre, the park’s unofficial wolf expert and the person who has likely watched more wolves than “anybody in the history of humanity.”

McIntyre, along with several other wolf watchers, shared with Blakeslee more than a decade’s worth of notes on generations of Yellowstone’s wolves, notes that capture every aspect of wolves’ lives from their personalities to their way of life—a way of life that, McIntyre has come to believe, makes wolves more like humans than any other species on earth. From these notes, and dozens of interviews with people on every side of the issue—including the hunter who would come face-to-face with O-Six in 2012—Blakeslee has crafted a sweeping multigenerational narrative that will have readers holding their breath, reaching for tissues, and rooting for the wolves.

***

Readers who would like to see photographs of O-Six and many of the wolves whose stories are recounted in American Wolf, are encouraged to visit the website of award-winning wildlife photographer Jimmy Jones.

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Return of the Sea Otter: The story of a resilient species and its many human friends

The sea otter should have been extinct by now.

We, as in human civilization, did our very best to eliminate the species — not because we saw it as a pest but because its pelts were among the most desirable. And so hundreds of thousands of these sea mammals were killed because they happened to posses the densest fur coats of any animal on this planet.

But the sea otter somehow managed to survive the slaughter. Handfuls of otters in Russia and the coasts of Alaska and California escaped, and, over time, their populations grew. Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast, by Todd McLeish, tells their comeback story — but with a caveat:  their comeback is not without its challenges.

Such as, sea otters are now considered pests. The fishing industry would like to see them eradicated or “managed” and this has led to much conflict and numerous accounts of sea otter attacks by boat and by gun. We simply do not know how many of these animals are killed by fisherman who deem them fair game, along with seals.

McLeish takes us with him as he visits researchers in Monterey, Alaska, British Columbia. We learn how sea otters are tracked and how the injured are nursed back to life. We watch them in the wild as they eat and play and use tools to pry open their shelled food — one of the few mammal to do so.

And we learn that their comeback story is geographically uneven. While they are doing better along the central California coast, there are vast areas along Alaska’s coast where they have declined. They are still missing from the coast of my home state of Oregon, where they were once numerous.

I always find it unfortunate when we must make the case for saving a species based on its value to us or the ecosystem. But the fact is, sea otters are considered keystone species of the coasts — and, as we are now learning, even estuaries. Sea otters love to exist among kelp and they feed on the creatures that would feed on kelp. By protecting the kelp they protect the countless other species that depend on kelp for their survival. Similarly, scientists have found that when sea otters live in estuaries, the grasses do far better, which in turn makes for healthier environments.

Of course, by eating sea urchins, fisherman have lost a key part of their industry. So, naturally, they say that sea otters must go.

It’s a tired story, but one that will play again and again as our oceans become increasingly depleted by, who else, the fishing industry. And make no mistake. The fishing industry is not the victim here. It’s time we as a society realize that there is no such thing as sustainable fisheries. We may want to believe they are possible, but they’re not. And you don’t have to look far to see atrocities taking place under the guise of sustainable fishing.

But I digress.

I enjoyed this book. And not only am I inspired by the stubbornness of this species, I’m equally inspired by the many researchers and volunteers and citizen scientists who do their parts to defend it.

You’ll come away knowing so much more about this amazing animal and, like me, desperate to go to the coast in search of seeing one (or a raft of them) in the wild.

Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast

Sasquatch Press

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BirdNote: Chirp-sized bird stories from the popular radio show

Here in Ashland, Oregon, I listen to our local radio station KSKQ. And for the past several years I’ve enjoyed the weekly, two-minute BirdNote programs.

So I was excited to find that there is now a BirdNote book. What the book lacks in audio, it makes up for in very high print production values; it is beautifully designed, with full-color illustrations and a handy bookmark tassel.

This will make an excellent gift for the would-be birder in your family. And even veteran birders will enjoy it. While I’d like to think I’ve learned a fair amount about birds over the years spent gazing upwards, I still learned plenty, such as:

  • The Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker rely heavily on ants that bore through the trees. A Norther Flicker was known to consume 5,000 ants in one sitting (or perching).
  • The Green Heron may use a “bait” of twigs, feathers or insects to attract fish within reach of their bills.
  • A barn swallow eats up to 850 insects a day — making this a wonderful bird to have around not just a barn, but any yard.
  • There is a crow roost in Illinois that is home to 100,000 crows. I would love to hear that.
  • The cardinal (who I sorely miss out here in the Oregon) was named after the red hats and robes of the Roman cardinals.
  • And speaking of red, cars this color are most often targeted by birds doing their business, according to a study. Green cars are least likely to be targeted.
  • And the much-maligned starling gets some deserved love. I find their symphony of sounds to be truly remarkable. And I was not alone; turns out Mozart had a pet starling that he wrote a poem about after it passed on.

My only complaint is that it would have been nice to see longer, more informative notes. A number of notes come in at just a few paragraphs.

Also, while some chapters do explain why certain species are threatened, such as the California Condor, I would have liked to see more of this, such as regarding the many species of albatross now under threat.

Quibbles aside, I recommend this book to anyone who loves birds (or anyone you think should love birds).

PS: All BirdNotes can be listened to online here

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show

Publisher: Sasquatch Books

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Book Review: Back from the Brink by Nancy F. Castaldo

Back from the Brink, by Nancy F. Castaldo, is a collection of stories for older kids (10 – 12 years old) about animals that have come very close to extinction.  Due to efforts from conservation researchers and passionate individuals who want to see these species survive, their populations have increased again.  I recommend this book for students who are interested in conservation and learning about how researchers help save species that are on the verge of extinction.  It would make an excellent addition to a school library.

The book starts with an introduction to the legislation that helps protect species, including the Endangered Species Act.  It is then divided into chapters that cover seven different species that have faced extinction: whooping cranes, wolves, bald eagles, Galapagos tortoises, California condors, American alligators, and American bison. The chapters discuss causes of population decline from issues such as hunting, poisoning, habitat loss, and competition from invasive species.  Castaldo follows that with information on how the populations were turned around and brought back from the brink through hard work by passionate individuals. The book ends with child-appropriate ideas to help save species.

The beginning and ending of each chapter is written in first person, recounting Castaldo’s visit to see the species of focus and where they live now.  The use of first person was an interesting choice. I think it will help students get the feel for actually being there and seeing these species.

The book is also filled with a lot of wonderful pictures of the animals.  Images that help support the information discussed in the text are also included, such as what a hacking tower looks like, which is used to fledge bald eagles, and what crane puppets look like, which are used to prevent chicks from imprinting on humans.

The book has a lot of detail, so it is long, as would be expected for older kids.  I do not recommend it for bedtime reading. The longest chapter is 30 pages. It is ideal for independent reading, reading for research projects, and for stretches of time when you can sit down for a while to read a chapter with your child.  I read this book with my daughter during the time between her brother’s bedtime and when she goes to bed about an hour later, reading just one chapter each night. It led to some great discussions about conservation. One night after we finished the chapter on whooping cranes I told her I was excited because the chapter the next night was going to be on wolves.  She was not happy. She told me she did not like wolves, but couldn’t elaborate on why. I pulled out my phone and showed her the video by Sustainable Human about how wolf reintroduction has had a wonderful impact on the environment in Yellowstone National Park.  She seemed more interested after watching it. When we went to read that chapter the following night she was excited and really engaged in the story of the wolves and the pictures in the chapter. I was glad to see her more interested in wolves and why it is important to save them.

Overall, I thought this was a great book to help students understand how species conservation has worked for these species, and the hard work involved in conserving a species.  Hearing these stories may help budding conservationists envision a future where they could do the same.

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The Overstory: An arboreal love story (and lament)

When we started EcoLit Books five years ago, this was the type of book I had in mind.

A novel that places nature in its proper place in relation to people. That is, above us — in this case, both figuratively and literally.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers has crafted an epic novel that stretches hundreds of years, culminating in a series of life-and-death environmental battles. But even more so, this is a novel about rediscovering the largest and oldest living creatures on our planet.

So many of the characters are alien to the trees they share the planet with until various events open their eyes. And they look. They smell. They see and feel the loss. And they act up.

The book could be used to teach a course on trees. And it should be used for just that purpose. I have books about trees — mostly identification. But identifying a tree is only step one. How does a tree relate to the creatures around it? How does it respond to insect attacks? How does it care for its siblings? And other species of trees? For example, the Douglas Fir, which we live among here in Southern Oregon, are called “giving trees” because the dying trees will send out nutrients to the Ponderosa Pines. Powers does an outstanding job of providing insights into beings we have only just begun to understand.

But there are oversights in the novel in regards to activism. While the novel addresses environmental activism in Oregon and elsewhere, the players are too often seen eating meat without any awareness of the irony of defending one living entity while eating another. I know that many of those activists who have served actual time behind bars for similar crimes are vegan. They don’t differentiate between protecting trees and protecting non-human animals. And it must be noted that millions upon millions of acres of forests have been cleared for the sole purpose of raising cows and sheep for human consumption.

In many ways I feel that this novel begins where Barkskins by Annie Proulx ends. And I highly recommend reading them in chronological order. And I’m not just talking about time but about awareness — our collective awareness that the planet is not some all-you-can-eat buffet, that the planet is, like us, finite and fragile. If you are not a “tree hugger” before reading these two books, you will be afterwards.

And I think what I like most about this book are the voices he gives those who have no (human) voice. Such as: All the ways you imagine us–bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal–are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

Like the trees Powers writes so beautifully about, this book towers above us and nurtures us. And, I certainly do hope, it motivates us to do more. And quickly.

The Overstory: A Novel

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Book Review: The Animals’ Agenda by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce is an important and timely book that examines the human relationship with — or, more accurately, examines the many ways in which humans use — animals and how this relationship needs to evolve. This book asks readers to rethink how we see animals and to adopt more compassionate practices toward them, from animals used for food and entertainment to those in the wild.

If this book has one message that we all need to hear, it’s that animals in our society suffer abuses that we currently accept as normal — the hope is that one day we will all see these practices as barbaric instead of acceptable or necessary. The authors argue that humans are indeed aware, on some level, of these abuses but are not taking steps toward actually preventing them. Most people still eat animals, still visit zoos, still hunt and fish. “We offer lip service to freedom, in talking about ‘cage-free chickens’ and ‘naturalistic zoo enclosures.’ But real freedom for animals is the one value we don’t want to acknowledge, because it would require a deep examination of our own behavior…Many animals live impoverished lives because of our desires or our lack of awareness.”

The Animals’ Agenda shows how, despite studies that prove the intelligence and emotional sensitivity of animals, nothing will change until humans accept this suffering and choose to stop supporting it — by not attending zoos, for example, or by not eating or wearing animal products. They compare the reality of standard, accepted animal suffering to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “The truth of animal feelings is similarly inconvenient, in that it challenges our highly profitable animal industries and our personal habits.”

The book is organized in sections that tackle the ways in which animals are at the mercy of humans, including farmed animals, animals in labs, pets, and wild animals. Among the most important points the authors make is that so-called improvements in the treatment of animals as a result of animal welfare studies actually do more harm than good because they let people off the hook by allowing them to believe the animals don’t suffer as much as they actually do. One powerful example is in the work of Temple Grandin, who “is hailed as a compassionate helper of animals while at the same time working within a venue in which billions of animals are harmed and killed…she has done more than anyone else to deflect attention from real freedom for animals. Even if a few animals are getting a ‘better life,’ it surely is not a good life.”

And this is the main point of The Animals’ Agenda: that non-human animals deserve the freedoms we human animals enjoy. And yet no non-human species comes even close. Even farmed animals who are fed and housed (allowing people to believe they are “cared for”) have no freedom whatsoever: “They are confined to small cages or crates, or else they are packed into a large space with so many others of their kind that physical movement is highly constrained…They have little to no control over social interactions and attachments.” Most of their diets are so unnatural to them that the animals feel hungry all the time, even when they are fed. And lest you think that “free-range” animals have it better, read on; as the authors show, “Humane is a dirty little lie.” Methods of castration, for example, that are “animal welfare approved” by the United States do not require anesthesia. And readers will be shocked to read of the terrible conditions and abuses that occur at AZA-accredited zoos.

One chapter of the book is devoted to companion animals and points out “how little research has been directed at the welfare of animals kept as pets, either in the home environment or in pet stores and breeding facilities.” Yet instead of focusing on ways to end the breeding and sale of animals, the authors focus on “exploring freedom and preferences in relation to our most common animal companions — dogs and cats” — despite their acknowledgment of the dearth of research. There are many good points in this chapter — the ills of the wholesale pet industry, the lack of knowledge most humans have about the needs of their pets — but by advocating for greater freedoms for companion animals, the authors do a disservice to shelter pets and their humans. While they acknowledge that “as companions of dogs, we can do our best to balance necessary constraints against as full a measure of freedom as possible,” they actually advise against keeping cats indoors (not mentioning exceptions for such circumstances as FIV-positive or declawed cats): “Depending on location, cats may have to contend with busy roads, with predators such as coyotes or cougars, with humans who have bad intentions, and with the possibility of injury or disease. But as with our children, we cannot protect them from all risk…Letting cats outside may be what ethicist Bill Lynn calls ‘a sad good,’ a good that involves an element of moral risk and harm.”

The fact that this book advocates so strongly for animals in other ways makes this chapter on pets a liability, as it risks derailing the book’s entire message: If readers think it’s okay to allow their cats to face injury, disease, and death from traffic or predators, why should they attempt to avoid causing such harm when it comes to farmed animals or captive animals in zoos? Many animal-rights activists would agree that keeping pets is something that humans should eventually give up — but until every last animal shelter is empty, these animals need to be adopted, loved, and protected. Companion animals deserve freedom the same way dairy cows do, but whereas the life of a dairy cow is a daily torture, most pets are not being tortured simply by being kept inside homes or behind fences for their own safety. Even a free dairy cow would presumably fenced in at a sanctuary, not left out on her own. It’s this chapter, in an otherwise stellar book, that may make it hard for non-activists to embrace the idea of animal freedom.

The Animals’ Agenda goes on to note the ways in which even wild animals, on both land and in oceans, suffer due to our influence — from habitat loss to our noise to our trash — and that even conservation work, such as capturing and tagging animals, has its own negative effects. Education is key here, and the authors’ message is clear: “a great number of things we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachment on wildlife.”

While Bekoff and Pierce detail the good science that is happening regarding animal welfare, they also note that we must “close the knowledge-translation gap”; in the end, much of this knowledge primarily serves the industries that abuse animals. For things to improve, for us to put “what we know about animals into the service of animals themselves,” it will take nothing less than a compassionate society to adopt a mindset of true animal freedom. A very good first step toward that is reading this book.

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An interview with NO WORD FOR WILDERNESS author Roger Thompson

If you were asked where the rarest bears on earth lived, would your first guess be an hour’s drive outside of Rome?

That wasn’t our first guess, either — but it’s the truth, and these bears are fighting to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. Author Roger Thompson has documented their struggle in his fascinating new book, No Word for Wilderness: Italy’s Grizzlies and the Race to Save the Rarest Bears on Earth.

In Italian, there is no word for wilderness. Yet in the mountains of Italy, brown bears not only exist, they are fighting to survive amid encroaching development, local and international politics, and the mafia.

This meticulously researched and eye-opening book tells the incredible stories of two special populations of bears in Italy—one the last vestige of a former time that persists against all odds, the other a great experiment in rewilding that, if successful, promises to change how we see not only Italy but all of Europe.

The Abruzzo bears of central Italy have survived amid one of the oldest civilizations on earth—but now, with numbers estimated at as low as fifty individuals, they face a critical future as multiple forces, from farmers to the mob, collide within their territory. The Slovenian bears of northern Italy, brought to the Alps at the turn of the century, have sparked controversy among local and international interests alike.

The stories of these bears take readers on a spectacular journey across Italy, where we come face-to-face not only with these fascinating species but with embattled park directors, heroic environmentalists, innovative scientists, and a public that is coming to terms with the importance of Italy’s rich natural history.

“Full of drama, adventure, tragedy, and heroes fighting against the most daunting of odds, No Word for Wilderness shows us what nature writing can be.” — J. Scott Bryson, author of The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry

Award-winning author Roger Thompson has traveled throughout Italy documenting the history and current crises of these bears, and the result is an engaging and in-depth examination that resonates across all endangered species and offers invaluable insights into the ever-evolving relationships between human and non-human animals in a rapidly changing world.

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

A: The initial idea for the book came after I first visited Abruzzo to find out about the bears. After being in Italy and hearing their story from people there, I felt the story needed to be told. The book, though, has changed during the process of researching and writing it. It has been a project that has shifted and changed over a six-year period, but the actual first draft I wrote in six months. I’ve done most of the writing at home, but I did do a fair bit in Italy as well as in Minnesota at a cabin where my family has vacationed since I was a child.

Q: Why should we care about these particular bears?

A: We should care because unlike most grizzlies, these particular brown bears have evolved alongside people, growing with communities over a millennia, and thus have adapted to life with man — and locals in Italy have adapted to the bears as well. The result is a remarkably symbiotic and peaceful relationship — a thousand years and no attacks.

Q: How many are there, and why are you concerned about them?

A: The best estimate is between 40 and 50. Some say it may be down to 30. Others say it may be higher. One former park director insists that until recently, there were at least 100, but there is no credible evidence of that. It’s clear that these bears are at a pivotal juncture because of new pressure on their habitat.

Q: What kind of pressure?

A: It’s mixed, but at the heart of it is organized criminal activity — some believe (and I think it likely) that it is mob activity. The bears live in a region that is highly valued for its agricultural potential — specifically, it’s valued because it presents great opportunity for cattle grazing. While that may not seem important, cattle grazing in Italy enjoys significant subsidies from the EU. Those subsidies are what organized crime is interested in. The bears, though, are in the way.

Q: How are they in the way?

A: The bear population lives primarily in Italy’s national parks in Abruzzo. Those parks have prime grazing lands. They also have almost no resources for enforcement of park rules and regulations. So, mafia can essentially underwrite people to come in and graze cattle on the parkland. As they do so, they come into contact with the bears.

Q: What happens with that contact? Is it dangerous?

A: No. Hardly, anyway. There are few, if any credible, reports of bears attacking cattle. There are no attacks on humans. These bears have an almost 100 percent vegetarian diet. And yet, the new land grazing interests have a habit of poaching and poisoning the bears.

Q: How is this being combatted?

A: Well, the key thing right now is that scientists are amassing huge volumes of data to demonstrate definitively how special these bears are and why they should be protected more aggressively. That data is the foundation of activism by a group of conservationists and scientists. It is, however, a race against time. Without international pressure, these peaceful bears and their local advocates have little chance in preserving the animals.

Learn more about No Word for Wilderness here

Roger Thompson is an award-winning nonfiction writer and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. A former wilderness canoe guide for a Minnesota camp and the founder and director of an environmental program in Banff, AB, he currently lives in New York with his wife and son. No Word for Wilderness is now available; visit Roger’s website and Facebook page for tour dates and events.

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Happy Earth Day

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, and unfortunately we’ve recently taken a lot more steps backward than forward.

Still, we humans have taken a lot of great steps forward since the 1970s. There’s a lot to celebrate about our planet, and so many ways to help it survive and thrive. We founded Ashland Creek Press to raise environmental awareness through literature … this combines two of our passions: stories and taking care of our planet. There are myriad ways to help out the planet, and to make every day Earth Day in your own life.

  • Immerse yourself in environmental literature! We love books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been — each is a stunning work of eco-lit, each in such a different way. Naturally, we also love every one of our Ashland Creek Press titles, from eco-fiction to veg lit to books about animals.
  • Watch movies. A few environmental films that are interesting, important, and well worth watching: Earthlings, Cowspiracy, What the Health, Forks Over Knives, If a Tree Falls, An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel … the list goes on, but this is a great start.
  • Take action. Clean up a beach or a park; step up your recycling; plant a new tree, bike or walk instead of driving; eat vegan for a month (or more) … there are so many small changes we can make that become regular habits and definitely make a difference.
  • Get political. Of course, don’t neglect to vote for candidates that believe in climate change and want to do something about it — but you can also write letters, sign petitions, march, and otherwise make your opinions known…every voice does matter.
  • Get kids involved. It’s clear that today’s young people are the ones who are going to change the world, and they’re realizing they need to do this for their own survival. Help them out, whether it’s by giving them books about environmental issues, spending time with them outside, volunteering with a nonprofit to clean a beach or maintain a hiking trail, or taking them to an animal sanctuary. Show them what’s at stake being out in nature.
  • Support organizations that do good work. From conservation to animal rescue to protecting the oceans, there are a lot of great organizations that need support to do what they do. Be sure to investigate nonprofits carefully to be sure your money is used wisely and that the organization is truly environmental (you might watch Cowspiracy before making donations). Here are a few organizations we feel are worthy of our support via the Ashland Creek Press Foundation.

We wish you all a very happy Earth Day, and here’s to much more progress to celebrate in years to come!