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Eager: The fall and rise of the North American beaver

Pity the keystone species.

Those animals upon which the health of so many ecosystems depend — wolves and jaguars, sharks and sea otters, to name just a few.

Due in large part to their outsized impact on our planet, they are often blamed for getting in our way. Wolves take our cows and sheep. Sea otters take our seafood. And jaguars and sharks take away our sense of comfort on land and in water.

Beavers are also a keystone species and, not surprisingly, no friend to many city managers or land owners. They create chaos with our human-built rivers and drains. And, because they are the member of a family with few human friends — the rodent family — we tend to view them as just another invasive species.

But what if beavers are not the sharp-toothed Beelzebubs we make them out to be?

What if beavers are actually a solution to many of the environmental crises we face today (crises brought about in part because we have done such a good job of getting rid of beavers in the first place)?

As author Ben Goldfarb makes engagingly clear in the timely book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter the eradication of the beaver across the United States over the past several centuries has had a significant and negative impact on water quality and supply, fish populations, riparian vegetation and the countless creatures that depend on those millions of ponds that once dotted continental North America.

And why did we lose the beavers?

Blame it on a hat, the beaver hat. This European fashion craze brought about their near extermination. Eager takes us back to the 1500s when Europeans began trading pelts with the natives until the fur gold rush attracted fortune hunters from far and wide. The killing was so complete that it was widely assumed by those who settled in California in the 1800s that beavers had never lived in much of the state (when in fact they once blanketed the state). But researchers and historians are finally and gratefully setting the record straight. And they are making clear that beavers played a critical role in building not just dams but in conserving water for dry summer months, providing nesting places for other animals, and breeding waters for fish.

Fortunately, we’re starting to relearn what was forgotten so long ago — that beavers are essential to healthy ecosystems. And there is a growing chorus of “beaver believers” who are spreading the word about their many benefits of these animals. These believers stand up in city hall meetings and write letters and letter our cities know that there are people who do not want to see beavers killed. Besides, one does not easily eradicate beavers. City leaders are learning that it’s far wiser to learn to coexist with beavers than try to kill them, because when you create a vacuum you only encourage new residents to set up shop. And there are businesses now that will help you build flow-through tunnels that allow beavers to have their dams while also maintaining human-built infrastructure.

It’s not often I feel inspired after reading books about animals these days. Everywhere I turn I find another species in rapid decline (and it’s partly my fault because I’m drawn to endangered species).

And yet we have the beaver, a species that despite our best efforts continues to survive and, in many parts of the world, thrive.

Thankfully, a growing number of scientists, citizens and ranchers now see that beavers not only have much to offer this land, but may in fact play a essential role in saving it.

Out here in the west, water can never be taken for granted. Once the snow melt goes dry so too do the valleys, unless we dam enough of the snow melt along the way, which we’ve done. But beavers do it better, in staggered steps, in ways that not only collect water but recharge the water table, provide nesting sites for birds (sandhill cranes in particular), filter the water that passed through and over the dams, providing the perfect spawning ponds for salmon. We talk a lot in the Pacific Northwest about removing human-built dams to save the salmon, but we also need to talk about allowing beavers back to building some of their dams, which will also help salmon rebound.

It’s nice to read examples of old-school ranchers who would have once shot a beaver on site now working to protect them (a handful of ranchers had been doing this way back in the early 1900s). To protect beavers is to embrace a degree of chaos. But the fact is, the more we try to manage nature the less manageable it becomes.

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Chelsea Green Publishing

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Book Review: Just Life

When I read a New York Times story about a New York City neighborhood grappling with a rare animal-borne disease that killed one resident and left at least two others seriously ill, it was, for me, a tragic case of life imitating art. You see, I’d recently finished Neil Abramson’s Just Life, a fast-paced fictional tale in which a mysterious and deadly zoonotic disease is spreading through a neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the Times’ story, medical officials concluded the disease—leptospirosis—was being spread by rats. In the novel, Abramson challenges readers by asking this: What if an animal-borne disease isn’t transmitted by rats or squirrels or birds or raccoons? What if the carrier is the family dog?

Dogs are the whole of veterinarian Samantha Lewis’s life. Her mother is dead, she’s estranged from her father, and she has little time for friends, lovers, or her shrink, whose diagnosis—that Sam has undealt-with-anger issues—she terms a “load of crap.” Sam devotes all her energy to running her New York City shelter for abandoned and abused dogs. It’s thankless work that keeps her questioning the humanity of her fellow humans, keeps “her expecting the people out there to care and being disappointed when they didn’t, of the flow of the unwanted and the rejected, of all the goddamn cages[.]”

Now the city is threatening to shut down Sam’s shelter—whether or not she can find homes for her dogs. And she doesn’t know why.

It’s during Sam’s campaign to save the shelter that an unidentified virus begins taking the lives of children in Riverside, the Manhattan neighborhood in which Sam’s shelter is located. When tests point to dogs as carriers of the deadly virus, New York’s politically-ambitious governor orders the NYPD and the National Guard to quarantine the neighborhood. Sam fears the quarantine is just the beginning. She knows that government-imposed responses to zoonotic-based diseases always follow the same trajectory: Quarantine. Cull. Kill.

Sam’s mission is now not only to save her dogs, but all the dogs in Riverside, and to uncover what’s making the local dogs sick. Sam gets help from a motley crew of fellow dog lovers, all of whom, like Sam and her shelter dogs, are seeking sanctuary from their own troubled pasts. There’s the local police officer mourning the tragic death of his K-9 partner, the homeless teen emancipated from the city’s foster-care system, the elderly priest fighting the onset of dementia, and the psychologist whose drug addiction ended her career.

While Just Life offers readers a page-turner of a plot, the novel’s strength lies in Abramson’s depictions of the human-canine relationship at its most beautiful and enduring, and also at its most ugly—in the abuse and abandonment of hundreds of thousands of dogs each year, in their euthanization in crowded shelters, and in their callous treatment as subjects in research experiments.

It’s through mining this ugliness that Abramson brings forth the novel’s heartfelt message: that too often “…we refuse to acknowledge—[humans and animals] are all the same in the most material ways; we are all just life.”

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Book Review: The Dog Merchants

The Dog MerchantsMost dog lovers consider their canines loyal companions, best friends, or beloved family members. (Count me in that last category.) The American legal system considers them property. Journalist Kim Kavin, in her new book, The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers, suggests that we view dogs in a more provocative way—as products, not unlike the chicken and steak, veal and pork, that line “that big case of meat in the supermarket.” After all, she tells readers, some thirty million dogs are bought and sold each year, in what is estimated to be an $11 billion-a-year global marketplace.

The Dog Merchants is not Kavin’s first foray into the business of dogs. She began digging into the issue for the book Little Boy Blue, which focuses on America’s taxpayer-funded animal shelters and the burgeoning rescue movement. What she learned doing that research inspired her to look beyond shelter dogs to the myriad ways dogs are sold worldwide, be it by breeders, pet stores, animal shelters, rescue groups, or dog auctions. In all of these transactions—whether they are called purchases or adoptions—dogs are exchanged for dollars. And all those dogs exchanged for all those dollars add up to an industry the scope of which is larger than most dog lovers realize and that goes virtually unregulated—too often to the detriment of the dogs.

In researching The Dog Merchants, Kavin’s mantra was follow the money, so among the places she takes readers is the largest dog auction in the United States, where both breeders and rescues bid on purebreds. The breeders, of course, bid for dogs they want to breed and sell. The rescues bid for dogs they want to keep from being bred. In the end, their bidding drives up the cost of each dog.

Kavin also goes behind the scenes of the 138th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where Sky, the winning Wire Fox Terrier, is “a dog in whom wealthy people owned shares, like a corporation.”

In the introduction, Kavin says she’s not on the side of the breeders or the rescuers—“I’m on the side of the dogs”—but breeders and buyers of dogs bred for shows like Westminster, where judging focuses solely on appearance, receive Kavin’s harshest scrutiny. That scrutiny, however, is well deserved. Modern dog breeds, which date to 19th century England, were bred for looks not temperament. The ramifications of that kind of breeding, which continues today via the breed standards propagated by kennel clubs, leaves dogs at risk for birth defects and genetically inherited health problems. Indeed, Kavin reports that a British study found inbreeding in ten popular breeds, including Boxers, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. And then there’s this striking factoid: The 2003 winner of Britain’s version of the Westminster dog show, a Pekingese named Danny, suffered so badly from a breathing problem common to dogs bred to have flat snouts that he’d undergone surgery to help him breathe and to cool himself. Kavin writes, “Anyone who looks closely at some of [Danny’s] winning photos … will see that he had to be placed on an ice pack while posing next to the trophy, so he wouldn’t overheat before the photographers were done making him a star, one who would now be in demand worldwide as a stud to breed more dogs just like him.”

The idea of dogs as products—and dog owners as consumers—may strike some as objectionable, but Kavin, herself a long-time dog-lover and dog owner, says it shouldn’t. Rather, she argues that viewing dogs through an economic lens gives dog lovers the clout to force the multi-billion-dollar industry to raise standards. “I believe that no matter how much all of us love our pups, thinking of them as products—just like so many of the sellers do—is the only way we can truly change the dog industry for the better.”

To help consumers make smart decisions about future pets, Kavin includes questions want-to-be-dog-owners should ask before buying from a breeder or adopting from a shelter or rescue. She’s also created a companion website, dogmerchants.com, where dog owners can research and review breeders and rescues.

Kavin’s bottom line is this: Dog lovers don’t need to be involved in dog rescue to make a difference in dogs’ lives. (Though, of course, if you have time to volunteer, shelters and rescues are always looking for the extra help.) What dog lovers need to be is smart shoppers, because only through the collective power of our purchases can we begin to demand the kind of treatment all dogs deserve.

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Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors

holy_molli

The Laysan albatross is known as Mōlī in Hawaiian. It is difficult not to speak in superlatives when describing the albatross. The bird has a wingspan longer than most humans are tall. Albatross far outlive most other birds — with one active albatross now 64 years old. They spend most of their lives  at sea, gliding just a few inches above the waves. Only 5% of their lives are spent on land — and this is where they are particularly vulnerable, when they are breeding and caring for their chicks.

Author Hob Osterlund is founder of the Kaua’i Albatross Network an organization that works to protect these birds. And through her writing you experience firsthand the challenges she and the birds face in establishing their relatively new colony. Generation by generation, Osterlund shares a wealth of stories, some happy and some not so.

Like the story of twin chicks, born to a couple that cannot possibly provide for both. Osterlund writes:

If you are like a lot of people, you might interrupt me now. You might ask if there wasn’t a way to hand-feed the chicks. I would have to refer you to Aaron; feeding a seabird is more complex than feeding a songbird. You have to be trained and officially authorized to slurry a squid and force-feed a ‘tross.

You might also ask whether The Twins should be euthanized to prevent their inevitable suffering. You might blame our species, and your own good self, for the many ways we’ve harmed the birds and their oceans. You might search for data to diminish your sorrow, to find a precedent. Alas, you will find little consolation in facts. None, actually. An albatross pair simply cannot catch and carry enough food to sustain two offspring.

We must try to be as brave as the babes, you and I.

But this is much more than a book about the albatross.

Interspersed are personal stories of a woman who lost her mother way too early. A woman who migrated to Hawaii after having been summoned in a dream by her ancestor.

Osterlund is a wonderful writer, deftly documenting a painful childhood while retaining her sense of humor throughout. She believes strongly in the power of humor, and this attitude carries through her writing.

As a bird lover, I appreciate how birds and humans are treated equally in this book. The birds have names, strong personalities, complex lives. They are, in other words, a lot like us. And, in other ways, they are our betters. Their navigational skills put most GPS devices to shame. And their willingness to raise chicks not of their own making is inspiring.

This is a lovely book about devoting your life to another species and coming to terms with your own.

Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors

Oregon State University Press

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Book Review: Landfill Dogs

Landfill cover2

In Landfill Dogs, photographer Shannon Johnstone pays homage to shelter dogs with images that capture their indelible spirit, but also the tenuousness of their existence.

Johnstone awoke to the twin issues of shelter overpopulation and euthanasia several years ago when she began volunteering at her local animal shelter, North Carolina’s Wake County Animal Center. The shelter is open admission. It gets overcrowded. And like many overcrowded shelters throughout the country, it sometimes euthanizes for space. It’s a situation, she writes, that so many of us “know exists but try not to think about.”

Challenging herself to “make visual this hidden tragedy,” Johnstone began taking dogs who’d been at the shelter for at least two weeks, and who were in danger of being euthanized, to a landfill-turned-county park. On these outings the dogs could be dogs—they rolled in grass, jumped for tennis balls, sniffed shrubs and dirt and the sometimes snow-covered earth—and Johnstone fixed her camera on them. The dogs’ portraits were then posted on the shelter’s website, a last ditch effort to save their lives. Overwhelmingly the photographs did their job.

Mary Puppins, courtesy Shannon Johnstone
Mary Puppins, courtesy Shannon Johnstone

Johnstone writes that as Landfill Dogs went to press, 123 of the 140 dogs she photographed had found homes, 5 remained in the shelter, 12 were euthanized.

I stumbled across Johnstone’s photographs three years ago, when Landfill Dogs existed as a series of online photos. I was struck by the intensity of the images, especially those featuring dogs’ faces. The dogs’ expressions, the contours of their jaws, their eyes—searching, questioning, hope-filled—stayed with me for days. Ultimately, I reached out to Johnstone and asked permission to use one of her photos on the cover of my book, Dogland. Fortunately for me, Johnstone agreed.

What sets Landfill Dogs apart from similar photo books is that Johnstone tracks down many of her dogs post-adoption and turns her lens on them once again. In these portraits, you can see the difference a home makes. The dogs’ eyes smile, their faces are less tense. The dogs’ humans smile, too.

A happy ending? Not exactly. For Johnstone knows that too many shelter dogs won’t live this happily ever after. Thus, she includes several photos that reveal both the act and the results of shelter euthanasia. Perhaps Johnstone’s purpose in ending on this low note is to challenge us, as she challenged herself, to “see with new eyes” the plight of our country’s shelter dogs.

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Film Review: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Okay, so this isn’t a book review — but it’s such an important documentary that I wanted to review it here on EcoLit Books. (The book connection: As you watch the film, you’ll learn about a few books to add to your reading list, including Comfortably Unaware and The World Peace Diet.)

Cowspiracy (which is currently still available for its special Earth Day price of $1) covers the impact of animal agriculture on the planet — it’s the number-one contributor to human-induced climate change and affects everything from the rainforests to the oceans — and why some of the biggest environmental organizations never talk about it.

cowspiracy

Filmmaker Kip Andersen interviews representatives of governmental and “environmental” organizations, including the Sierra Club, Oceana, Surfrider (he tried to talk to Greenpeace, which wouldn’t agree to speak with him), and it’s fascinating to watch them stumble over their words when asked about animal agriculture’s impact on the planet.

And yet the facts speak for themselves. To produce just one quarter-pound burger takes 660 gallons of water (in other words, two months’ worth of showers). One gallon of dairy milk uses 1,000 gallons of water to produce, and for every one pound of fish caught, there are five pounds of bycatch (including dolphins, sharks, turtles, and penguins). To protect cattle-grazing lands in the United States West, ranchers kill coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, cougars — and wild horses and burrows are being rounded up and held so that cattle ranchers can use public lands for grazing.

Why won’t so many environmental groups talk about this? It’s not an easy topic, with agribusiness being so powerful. In Brazil, 1,100 activists have been killed for speaking out against animal agriculture. And of course, as Michael Pollan says in the film, asking people not to eat meat and dairy is a “political loser” for member-based organizations.

Yet there are both individuals and organizations who will speak the truth, and this is where the heart of the film is. A spokesperson for the Sea Shepherd Conservation society says there is “no such thing as sustainable fishing,” and quotes what founder Paul Watson often says: If the oceans die, we die. “That’s not a tagline,” she adds. “That’s the truth.”

Cowspiracy contains some difficult truths for omnivores, but it’s important viewing for anyone who’s concerned about the environment — and the last half hour is truly inspiring for those who are open to making a difference. (And in the last twenty minutes is one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen in a film…don’t miss it.)

“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period,” says Howard Lyman, former cattle rancher and author of Mad Cowboy. “Kid yourself if you want…but don’t call yourself an environmentalist.”

Visit Cowspiracy to learn more. And even if you don’t watch the entire film, do check out the film trailer, read some of the facts, and find out how to take action.

 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Book Review: The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

The Lorax

In a quiet part of town where the houses stand close
and evening stretches long the shade of the garden hose
and the baby falls asleep clutching her teddy bear’s toes . . .
it’s time to read my son The Lorax.

We’ve read this book for almost a month to the day
and our ritual always begins the same way,
snuggling on top of my bed,
he tilts up his tow head
and asks, “Why the Lorax is lifted away?”

We pretend not to know why the Lorax will leave
and we crack the book and start the nightly read.
That first time, I wondered,
“Will he understand?”
Can he know why we must give Truffulas a hand?
I wasn’t quite sure where his intuition would land.

But boy! Oh, boy!
How he loved the first smacker!
His eyes went wide when we spied the Super Axe Hacker.
He gleefully counted the trees on each page,
watching the Onceler quickly clearcut the stage,
leaving me quite shocked at his industrialist rage.

The next day I began his reeducation.
We went into the yard and took up a station,
learning the importance of all of creation.
“Do you think,” I drilled,
“trees want to be Thneeds?”
“No,” he parroted. “Trees help us breathe.
“They give homes to the birds and squirrels and bees.”

So back to The Lorax we went after dinner,
(my hopes for his morality considerably thinner)
but I found that my lessons indeed struck a bell.
“Poor trees,” he sighed,
as one by one they fell
and when the Lorax left, the tears even started to well.

What a marvel it was to see this drastic change;
this single book created such emotional range.
How does The Lorax set such sympathies loose
when the hero has–come on–all the charm of a moose?
It is, quite simply,
the mastery of Dr. Seuss.

He chooses the Truffula residents with care,
whether humming fishes or ridiculously playful bears.
The colors are crisp. The world is bright
and somehow there isn’t a predator in sight
until the Onceler–or at least his disembodied arms–alight.

Then the mise-en-scène bleeds into purples and browns.
The belching factory begins to dominate the town
and all the animals faces fade into frowns.
It’s an overt approach even a toddler can sense,
at least, once all his blood-lust is dispensed.

There are still parts I don’t like for a boy in his threes
we skip the Onceler’s line, “Shut up, if you please.”
And last week when I chased him
while the bathwater ran,
he protested, “No, you dirty old Onceler man!”
prompting more revisions and narrative bans

Of course, I see the book with a writer’s skew,
noting the strategy of the villain’s point of view,
but a curious villain
because he sees the light
and inhabits the mess, where most messmakers take flight,
if indeed they’ve even witnessed their terrible blight.

Why did the Onceler decide to stop biggering?
Wasn’t there a new “Truffula” to axe while sniggering?
A new product, a new market,
today’s entrepreneurs know
when you go flat broke
you simply find a new show,
regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

The mystery of the Onceler’s remorse aside,
I’m underwhelmed by his decision to fret and hide,
and even the Lorax, for all his blustery shouts,
makes no effort to restore the world he touts;
he just shepherds his creatures toward other routes.

Yes, I understand Dr. Seuss’s grand plan
to show every child with a Truffula seed,
“They can!”
They are the change agents, the world’s future holders,
but what awful weight
for such tiny shoulders.
This ending has all the joy of Sisyphus’s boulders,

which is why when we come to the story’s end
and with tearful eyes, my son asks me again,
“but why the Lorax is lifted away?”
I hug him close, and lie as I say,
“He went back to his mommy, and she’s so happy he’ll stay.”

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Book Review: The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight To Save North America’s Other Wolf

The Secret World of Red Wolves
Considered functionally extinct in 1980, the much-misunderstood red wolf (Canis rufus) has made a tenuous but promising comeback. In The Secret World of Red Wolves, T. Delene Beeland relates the fascinating saga of the red wolf. In researching her book, Beeland followed Fish and Wildlife biologists into the field, crawling through blackberry thorns and dense stands of myrtle while swatting at mosquitoes and gnats in the hot, humid environment of North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula. Her interest and firsthand involvement in the project makes The Secret World of Red Wolves the wonderful book that it is. Beeland’s presence is on every page, and in a pleasantly personal yet scientific manner. We come to know the red wolf through the eyes of an objective writer, one who has the ability to deliver the details in both a factual and enthralling way.

The red wolf, a smaller version of the better-known grey wolf, once inhabited much of the northeastern part of this country, including Louisiana, Texas, the Carolinas, Florida, and Alabama. Devastation of its environment, as well as the wolf-loathing mentality brought to this country by early settlers, caused a drastic reduction in their population. Once the red wolf population was depleted, coyotes moved in from the west, taking over the niche of their larger cousins. The two canids began to interbreed, and the resultant hybridization has become a serious threat to the integrity of the red wolf species.

Coyotes and red wolves are often mistaken for each other, and the hybrids are even more difficult to identify. Because of the morphological similarities between Canis rufus and coyotes, there remains much controversy over the genealogical origin of the red wolf. Is it a subspecies of the grey wolf or a species of its own? Is Canis rufus derived from its liaisons with Canis latrans? Or is the red wolf perhaps part of a lineage that led to the coyote of today?

The Secret World of Red Wolves pursues these questions in depth, as well as many others pertinent to Canis rufus. The text is divided into three sections: the current red wolf situation, the animal’s difficult past, and, finally, its guarded but hopeful future. By beginning with close-ups of today, including Beeland’s forage into the brush to locate litters of whimpering, month-old pups, readers become invested in both the four-legged and the two-legged characters, as well as in the red wolf recovery project. When we play catch up with the history of the story, we’re already aware of the trajectory the Fish and Wildlife Service must take to reverse the damage done to this fragile species. And when we read of the future, we understand what challenges will be faced, including the continued struggle to prevent hybridization, the loss of wolves due to hunting and trapping, the continued degradation of habitat due to climate change, as well as the ever-important goal of garnering public acceptance for the maligned red wolf.

Beeland lays it all out there, the struggles and successes of what continues to be an innovative and determined effort to save an endangered species, and we finish her book feeling something of an expert ourselves. Beeland’s hope in writing this thorough and relatable text is, in her words, “…that future scientists and citizens will see fit to conserve what we have left of Canis rufus as a living reminder of both what was and what still can be.”

The Secret World of Red Wolves holds much potential in helping Beeland’s vision come true. The work tells a tale most of us, even those who consider ourselves environmental enthusiasts, know little about. For the first time, we have at hand a comprehensive and up-to-date resource that serves to enlighten the world on the precarious status of the red wolf. And once enlightened, we can do our part to ensure the continued protection of this rare and unique species.

The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf
By T. Delene Beeland
The University of North Carolina Press, June 2013

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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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