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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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