A NOVEL IDEA by Kristin McCloy

If anybody asks, as everybody does, I am a writer. I’ve dabbled with plays, poetry, published a couple of stories, written some reviews, edited other people’s work, and taught; but mostly, I’m a novelist, and very lucky that when my first one was finished I was in the right place at the right time (young/NYC/late ‘80s, with a runaway manuscript that had five sex scenes, not a single one gratuitous).

Velocity made me a ridiculous amount of money while my second novel had already been bought as an idea. Because of this, I fell, and for too long remained under the illusion that writing would always sustain me.

HA!

My third novel, Hollywood Savage, published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster called Atria Books was given zero publicity. They rushed it out without even the author photo I had provided, or any blurbs from other authors. Perhaps they decided I would make a better tax deduction, but it was very hard to watch something I’d spent several years on come and go without a trace.

I am now working on my fourth novel, advance-free and editor-less.

All of the above is the preamble to the how and why I became an animal caretaker.

Primarily, it is something I do to generate some cash flow, if not much, but it is all cash, and boy does it flow. In and right back out again — as it should! That’s why it’s called currency.

I’ve been stupid rich, and I’ve been astonishingly poor, and I’ve discovered that I’m not materialistic, and I don’t need more money than it takes for me to live on – which I’ve learned to do with not much, unless you don’t count on tremendous generosity from your friends — and I do. Oh boy, do I!

In fact, part of that help began when a woman I met at my first reading for LitQuake, and who became the most constant member of my fiction workshop, asked if I would consider staying in their back storage unit/living studio to take care of their menagerie (one dog and three cats, plus the house and garden), so that she and her husband could take a three-month fellowship he’d landed in Marseilles, France.

The storage unit is filled mostly with books, has a wonderfully high bed, high ceilings, great insulation and a skylight, while the garden is lush and wild, with plum and apple and peach trees, along with a lot of fennel which attracts Monarch and Swallowtail butterflies. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, especially when I saw that my own kitty, Zelly, a serious hunter could leap out the window and into the mysterious natural world whenever she wanted, and then back in again – I felt like I’d won the lottery.

After they returned and graciously allowed me to stay on, I looked for more animal caretaking jobs and slowly began acquiring clients, two of whom book me at the beginning of every year, and who’ve kept me afloat when other jobs occasionally dried up.

While the work is not exactly high-pay, I love it – not least because it comes so easily to me, as I’ve loved animals with a freakish intensity ever since I was a little girl, as I think most children do (just look at picture books!) Innocence has such a soft spot for other innocence, and children are particularly vulnerable, as are nearly all the animals in our world.

I’m good at what I do because I have never not fallen in love with other people’s animals. It’s fun getting to know each little sentient being for its own distinct personality, with as many quirks and differing habits as any person I know. The exception is that, given enough time and attention, all of these little guys will start to shower me with affection in their own way – whether it’s wanting to be in (literal) touch at all times, or deciding they need to sleep on my chest at 3:00 A.M. Some of them follow me from room to room, others are more, Can you open the effing door already?

Like Jules Pfeiffer’s cartoon women, I dance to the ever-present grace in every single cat, their ability to drape themselves anywhere (and then sleep!) to twist themselves while free-falling in space so as to land on their flexible feet, then simply walk away unscathed (and, more importantly to them, I believe, unembarrassed!)

I dance to the way they pretend you don’t matter, but manage to keep you in their sight-lines at all times, regardless of how well they hide themselves (it’s called ‘cat space’ and if that cat does not want to be found, well then: good luck!)

When I’m writing I often ask my small charges to help me channel the genie, and so often they will curl up around me (on the arm of a couch, on the floor at my feet, nearby on a windowsill) and fall into the trance-like sleep I so envy, creating an atmosphere of deep serenity into which my mind can drop.

The only thing I dislike about animal care is that I have to leave Zelly at home by herself, where she basically just waits for me. She’s an Abyssinian, a breed known for their wild beauty as well as their unusual loyalty. They bond with a single being and you, lucky lucky you, become their world.

I got Zelly after the cat I had adopted from a neighbor who was never home — a regal creature I named Napoleon — was hit by some asshole driving very fast down a single-block street. Napoleon tried to come home and made it only halfway across the street. I bent over him and howled. The grief was so intense I knew the only thing that would help would be adopting another cat, because believe me, there is no shortage of beings who need out of a cage and into your heart.

Zelly was curious, insanely playful, and if you threw something for her, she would snatch it out of thin air and bring it back. Not like a dog, panting and leaving it at your feet, but much more casually, jumping on the bed and carelessly dropping it near your hand. Her cool was stunning, and very funny. But when she needed affection, she let me know. She would get up on my chest and knead me, then curl up next to me and sling one paw over my collarbone. I often fell asleep holding that paw.

Somewhere along the line, I had the realization that my cat was essentially living for me. Attending to her own cat business (oh where to take those seventeen naps?), but also waiting for me to come home, wanting attention, wanting to play, and later, if I’m very lucky, jumping in bed when I wake up panicked by everything at 5:00 A.M. to meow in my face then curl up in the space between arm and heart to purr us both back to sleep.

Understanding that this breathing, living, loving, very chatty being was and is singularly devoted to me struck me with a sudden force. The extent of that devotion left me breathless, and from then on I knew: she wasn’t my cat, I was her girl.

I think most people take their animals’ utter devotion for granted, and I want to shake them and ask, Don’t you understand what an honor that is?

So here’s the thing: while I identify myself as a writer, a label that goes a lot deeper than words (no pun etc.), who’s to say what’s the more important work? Writing books that one hopes will outlast one’s own lifetime, and might perhaps achieve what Jean Cocteau always claimed was the main reason for writing – to ‘utterly overwhelm a single soul’? Or is it the care and love that flows between myself and the animals I’ve been entrusted with, including my own?

I met a dog named Dirk when I was an undergraduate at Duke. Dirk was easily the smartest animal I’ve ever met (she should have been, considering how many classes she attended with me alone!) She was one of my roommates during her owner’s last semester at the university, and when I asked for custody, her human sneered and said, You don’t even know where you’re going to live next year!

Well, that was true. But apparently, Dirk did. Because one day, when I wasn’t even home, my sister, with whom I shared an off-campus house along with a litany of others, heard a wild scratching on the screen door, opened it, and in out of the rain came Dirk. She jumped on the couch, stretched out, and fell asleep. She remembered my promise, and she obviously had my number. For the rest of the time I was there, Dirk lived with me.

When, we had to part, I entrusted her with my soul. She was the fiercest guard I could think of, and when I die, I pray she will be the first creature I see. And when I look around, I hope that I see every other animal I ever loved, freed, helped, took care of, or mourned for – including every animal sacrifice, any animal hurt, wounded, or poached – every animal in the whole wide world.

Because that is my idea of Heaven.

This essay is a shout out to the gorgeous variety of creatures who have their own deep intelligence, and everything to teach us about being at ease in your own skin, trusting your instincts, and loving without limit.

Kristin McCloy is a thrice-published author (Velocity, Some Girls, and Hollywood Savage), working on her fourth, and living in Oakland with the cat who owns her, Zelly, and the family who took them in. 

 

A LIFE-LONG DREAM REALIZED: VOLUNTEERING WITH THE BIG FIVE IN AFRICA by Melissa Haynes

melissa haynes

“Everyday you can either be a host to God or a hostage to Ego”Dr. Wayne Dyer

Dreamers spend their lives asleep. The early bird gets the worm. Keep your head down and work hard. Your job is your worth. If you don’t have a good job, you don’t have anything. Money makes the world go round. You are your bank balance. Your title defines you. No one will like you if you aren’t successful in business. Things matter. Appearance is everything. Grow up. Get real.

My father had the stage every Sunday night at the formal dining room table. In between bites of roast beef and soggy vegetables he pontificated this sage advice. His well-meaning yet fear-based words were meant to instill a strong work ethic, but as a young child I took these words verbatim and adopted them as my own fear-driven demons beliefs that would form my identity and value.

In The Impersonal Life, author Joseph Benner says beliefs are merely the “rubbish we have gathered from the dumping ground of others.” This is a story of rubbish removal told from the best viewpoint possible: hindsight. It’s 20/20.

It was 2010; I had spent the last three decades desperately trying to fulfill my so-called identity. That started with a paper route and led me to where I was now – about to finish the 2010 Olympics and with it my job as an Olympic project manager. Recession would follow the Games; the economy was already contracting and the torch hadn’t even left town yet.

Melissa HaynesThousands would be looking for jobs and they told us to prepare to be unemployed for at least a year – perhaps two. The prospect of being jobless, worthless for two years was unfathomable. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to. I had an offer to sit at the head of a company in an industry I knew inside and out. The Head of an established company. The Boss. The Big Cheese. The ‘Shit’. I had finally fulfilled my identity destiny and my demons had never been more thrilled.

The job wouldn’t be easy; I’d work long hours at least six days a week, and not have much of a life outside of work; something that was strangely alluring in the past. I’d be so committed to work that I’d quickly bypass the point of no return when it came to children; also something that was strangely alluring in the past. So why then, was I hesitating?

It was the nudge.

The nudge came in the form of a story the late Dr. Wayne Dyer recounted in many of his PBS specials and his movie, The Shift.

Wayne Dyer was 19 years old and had just entered the navy. He was about to make the 28 day voyage to Japan by sea. Before he boarded the ship his uncle Bill gave him a book of short stories written by Leo Tolstoy. One of those stories was called, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich was a judge who lived in Moscow. He hated his wife because she had pushed him into this prestigious career, one he did not get any sense of purpose from. He was filled with internal rage and anger. Laying on his deathbed, his wife holding his hand, he looked into her eyes and whispered his last words, ‘What if my whole life was wrong?’ then he died.

Wayne set down the book, opened his notebook and wrote these words: Dear Wayne, don’t die with your music still in you.

While I stood at the crossroads of perhaps what was the biggest (in hindsight) decision of my life, the nudge was too powerful to ignore.

Would I dare to fail? Would I dare to be embarrassed when I fell flat on my face? Would I dare to be judged? Would I dare to let my bullshit identity die? Would I dare to expunge the one thing that defined me? Would I dare to challenge my demons beliefs?

The temptation of comfort and the known was great, but the possibility of living a muted life was even greater.

I turned down the job and dared to do what I had wanted to do my entire life. A spark of passion that was ignited in kindergarten while daydreaming within the pages of National Geographic magazine – I would go to South Africa and save the animals.

At the time I didn’t know if I had just made the best or worst decision of my life. I was leaning towards the latter. But now from the vantage point of the hind, I can see it was the best damn decision I ever made.

After researching many organizations and projects I decided on a Big Five conservation project with an organization called Edge of Africa. I liked that the project was small and very hands-on.

HiShortly after, I arrived in a tiny pocket of South Africa just off the Garden Route to a small game reserve. The reserve was home to rescues of the Big Five: lions who had been saved from a trophy-hunting farm, elephants whose herds were annihilated by poachers and sent to be touring elephants – a fate they rebelled against so they ended up here. Rhinoceros, giraffes, wildebeest, buffalo and crocodiles plus many other animals also called this place home – it was a dream come true.

That was at least until I was shown to my tent camp, a small triangular plot on the edge of the reserve, where I would be sleeping alone. Nothing but a thin electrical wire that merely served as a ‘mental block’ to the animals was all that separated me from them.

065 - Version 2The lion camp bordered one side. The elephant camp was on the other side and the open reserve on the last. The lions were so close, I could hear their roars every night, needless to say I didn’t sleep a wink that first night.

Work began at dawn and ended at dinnertime. The first time I put on the soft, butter yellow, work gloves I had never felt more proud. That is until I began to actually work. Have you ever lifted elephant dung? It’s as heavy as a bowling ball. Mucking out ellie stalls took hours of backbreaking, stinky work. But you know what? It was great. I loved every grueling second of it.

Days were spent patrolling the reserve, tending to the animals, tracking cheetah, and overall reserve maintenance. Working with the animals was exhilarating. I had never felt more purpose or alive because I was finally taking out the rubbish. I had never learned so much about things that really mattered. Every day I gave of myself trying desperately to even out the balance sheet, but the more I gave, the more I received – forever indebted to the animals of Africa.

037A few days in, the worst storm in over a century pummeled the game reserve. Our conservation effort quickly morphed into a massive clean up effort. Rebuilding roads by hand one stone at a time. Chopping reeds from within a crocodile pit to relieve the flooding. Cutting tree branches for food, our only tool for all these jobs – a machete.

One of the casualties from the storm was a red hartebeest, a regal creature. She didn’t die instantly; it would take a few days. I cried and cried for that hartebeest but I also witnessed the perfection of nature and life in her passing. It was a gift that would release me from my own grief over my mother’s passing a few years before.

Soon I no longer feared sleeping in my tent, the lull of the roar of the lions put me to sleep every night. In fact, pretty soon I didn’t fear anything and was ready to confront a life-long phobia: Great White Sharks.

The finale of this volunteer project came weeks later, off the coast of Mosselbaii, South Africa. Pumped-up from my experience thus far, I began to shiver with fear when I climbed into the titanium shark cage. There we waited in the deep blue darkness and silence save for the loud thumping of my heart.

And then it began.

101The cage began to rock. Not from the current, but from the massive weight of the creature that had just slipped past behind us. I tried to look but only caught a glimpse of a dark shadow disappear into the blue. The terror was overwhelming. I reminded myself to breathe.

Within minutes shark after shark came to check us out, one even pushing his nose through the cage just inches in front of my face. Oh my God! Would he bite my head off? Smash the cage? No, no he would not. He would retreat and move on just as quickly as he had arrived.

In this moment I realized that this life-long phobia was nothing more than an illusion. Great white sharks were the coolest and most beautiful beings I had ever seen.

My fear quickly morphed into profound love for this misrepresented creature. A graceful, inquisitive, powerful predator who, after surviving millions of years was now endangered at the hand of the greatest super predator of all: the human race.

As the sea turned pink with sunset I made it my mission to spread the truth about these magnificent creations and put an end to the myths by supporting shark advocacy groups and speaking up for legislation to protect sharks.

My time in Africa was a brief sojourn, merely weeks. I went there to save the animals but the animals saved me. They saved me from my beliefs demons that kept me from daring. They saved me from . . . dying with my music still inside me and I’ve been dancing ever since.

Hindsight. It’s 20/20.

Melissa Haynes is a shark advocate, animal lover, adventure junkie, and author of the book, Learning to Play with a Lion’s Testicles. Her book has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and on Ellen. She is now working on her second book. To see more photos visit her website. (Her crossed-out words in this story are intentional.)

LOVE MADE VISIBLE by Jo-Anne McArthur

Jo-Anne McArthur Sea Shepherd

Click on each photograph below to see it in larger size.

It’s summer in the Antarctic and on sunny days I can venture out onto the bow of our Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker, to let the warmth penetrate my bones. Between chores, the bow is a great place to spend a bit of idle time outdoors reflecting on life and on our mission here in the southern oceans.

Keep a sharp eye and you’ll spy dolphins, penguins, albatross, and southern petrels. These moments of quiet reflection give me time to reflect on how the heck I got to be on this boat of environmental and animal rights activists, and on how a few defining life decisions led me to this moment.

A beautiful but wet day on the Antarctic Ocean.

A beautiful but wet day on the Antarctic Ocean.

Life won’t always be this idyllic aboard our boat, which the crew affectionately refers to as “The Bob.” We will have intensely dangerous confrontations with our rivals, the Japanese whaling fleet. Our boat is one of three on this 2009-2010 Antarctic Mission to stop the poaching of up to 935 Minke whales, which are hunted by the fleet and sold for meat in Japan.

Bob Barker captain, Chuck Swift, gives orders to crew in an intense moment while being surrounded by the Japanese whaling fleet.

Bob Barker captain, Chuck Swift, gives orders to crew in an intense moment while being surrounded by the Japanese whaling fleet.

The whalers hunt under the transparent guise of “research,” and though the countries who are members of the International Whaling Commission have imposed a ban on whaling in this southern sanctuary, no one is there to enforce the ban. Long time radical animal activist Paul Watson decided to take the matter into his own hands, sending ships down to the Antarctic to intercept the slaughter of these endangered animals. My title on board The Bob is “Sea Shepherd Crew Photographer.” It’s a role I almost turned down in lieu of a much-needed restful winter in Canada. When I think about a “fabulous” experience or moment in my life, he story of how I came to be on The Bob is one of those. I am a photojournalist and the work I do for animal rights is rewarding and exhausting. The year 2009 was undoubtedly the craziest of my 33 years. It began with a trip through Guatemala and Belize, followed by three months in Africa.

A volunteer shares a moment with a rescued chimpanzee.

A volunteer shares a moment with a rescued chimpanzee.

While shooting a photo story at a primate sanctuary in Cameroon, I contracted dengue fever, which left my body crippled with reactive arthritis. Refusing to return home for a rest, I moved on to Uganda to do photo work with the Jane Goodall Institute. There I asked a doctor to load me up with the meds necessary to allow me to continue my work. These meds were steroids, and I relied on them for close to four months. They helped me to walk and work, but slowed my overall healing significantly.

After a brief rest in Canada, I left for Spain and France to do factory farm investigations and a story about the brutal slaying of bulls during La Corrida. Night after night, with cameras in hand, I traipsed all over the country to document the extreme suffering of pigs, broiler chickens, egg laying hens, and bulls. From there I went onto Scandinavia where I documented mink farming. It was incredibly exhausting work, in both the emotional and physical sense. The traveling and all-night investigative escapades left me drained in a very profound way.

Thousands of bulls are needlessly killed each year in Spain’s Corrida.

Thousands of bulls are needlessly killed each year in Spain’s Corrida.

I do all of this investigative work so that I can help expose the use and abuse of animals worldwide. The images I take have become part of my umbrella project on the subject matter, called We Animals, and dozens of animal welfare organizations use the images to promote their work. We Animals is my passions combined: my love for story-telling through the lens and my love for helping animals, seamlessly entwined, epitomizing that famous quote by the writer Kahlil Gibran, “Work is love made visible.” I feel very strongly that my work for We Animals is what I was born to do in this lifetime. I took action to solidify this belief when I wrote to Sea Shepherd that November.

Free range chickens are collected, six at a time, by their legs, and put on the truck headed to slaughter.

Free range chickens are collected, six at a time, by their legs, and put on the truck headed to slaughter.

The Sea Shepherd mission came on the heels of my European investigative work so I put off replying to them as to whether I would join. The opportunity stood before me as a chance of a lifetime: saving whales, visiting the Antarctic, living on a boat, working alongside other dedicated activists … incredible! Yet I knew that I had to say no for the sake of my recovering health and my sanity. I wrote a carefully crafted e-mail, saying that I would love to join future campaigns, but would regretfully decline this upcoming mission. I sat there at my computer before hitting “send,” feeling responsible but hollow. As I navigated my mouse to the “send” button, however, something happened. I quickly deleted that email and, with a smile and a sigh, wrote the words “Sign me up!” I hit send. My fate was sealed.

The Ady Gil, moments after it has been rammed by the Shonan Maru No.2 The boat sunk less than 48 hours later. All crew members escaped.

The Ady Gil, moments after it has been rammed by the Shonan Maru No.2 The boat sunk less than 48 hours later. All crew members escaped.

My “yes” to Sea Shepherd was a door thrown open wide. I felt like I was also staring down a dark abyss of danger, seasickness, and sleep deprivation. It was all that and so much more. Not only did I have the adventure of a lifetime with inspiring activists and work that was meaningful to me, but my photos were also published by over two thousand news agencies worldwide. Though I was working for Sea Shepherd for free, it turned out to be a decent career move while helping to expose the poaching of whales in the southern oceans. I’m happy to report that my Sea Shepherd mission only somewhat slowed my recovery to full health. The dengue-induced arthritis lingers, but I have made a full recovery.

photo by Bohdan Warchomij

When I finally caught my breath after that whirlwind twelve months, I was sure that things would slow down and that there’d be calmer waters ahead. Actually, though, that whirlwind hasn’t really stopped. Since that year, I have travelled to dozens more countries and worked with many inspiring animal protection groups to document factory farms, wildlife sanctuaries, puppy mills, captive animals, fur farms, slaughterhouse vigils, animal fairs, and more. I have written two books and, with Dr. Keri Cronin, launched the Unbound Project to highlight the work of women on the front lines of animal advocacy. Little did I know that in 2009, I was just getting started.

In documenting our complex relationships with animals, I see the best and worst of humanity: the willingness of so many to look the other way in the face of atrocities, and the refusal of some to turn away.

Me and a rescued chicken at Farm Sanctuary. Photo by Karol Orzechowski

The work I do is can be difficult and devastating. I’ve shed more tears than I thought possible over the cruelty, hopelessness and apathy that I have witnessed. Not being able to save the tens of thousands of animals I’ve met causes me a lot of heartache too. Yet every moment of injustice and suffering that I have captured serves a purpose. My images have been presented to government committees examining industry practices. They have been mounted on billboards seen by millions of people. They have been featured in countless exposés highlighting practices that would otherwise remain in the dark. The work is hard, yes, but the suffering of those animals is not lessened by our not seeing it. Change will only come with visibility, so I continue my work to make sure these beings are seen.

On the other side of what I do are the rescued animals. And the activists who give––and risk––everything to make sure that those animals know that despite everything they have been through, they’re safe now. They’re loved. My work for animals is my love made visible.

Jo-Anne McArthurJo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning photojournalist, author, educator, and animal rights activist. Her documentary photo project We Animals explores our uses, abuses, and sharing of spaces with the animals of this planet. She is featured in the award-winning documentary film The Ghosts in Our Machine and has written two books, We Animals (2013) and Captive (2017).

VIEW FROM THE TOP by Nalini Nadkarni

Photo by Michael and Patricia Fogden for National Geographic

I have a great job; I climb trees to study the rainforest canopy. My journey to understand trees started early in my life, when I climbed the eight sturdy sugar maples in the front yard of my home in suburban Maryland. Most afternoons, I would drop my school books inside the front door, grab a snack and a book, and scramble up one of those trees, each with its own vertical pathway to a comfortable nest aloft. Those perches were refuges from the world of homework, parental directives, and the ground-bound humdrum of the everyday. I could look out across my home territory, check on the progress of squirrel nest constructions, and feel the strong limbs of those trees holding me up for as long as I wished. It was in those afternoons of arboreal repose that my sense of kinship to trees germinated.

Trees were not my only focus in those formative years. My parents provided me with modern dance lessons from Erika Thimey, a German-born dance teacher who offered the gift of creativity to her students. I learned the expressive ways the body can move and acquire the discipline that is needed to hone my muscles. From Miss Erika, as we called her, I learned that with mindfulness, the simple act of walking across a wooden floor or noting the graceful fall of a leaf can be an aesthetic action. It opened up a whole different way of seeing that has kept me aware of the multiple ways that one must look at nature to understand it fully, an approach I now bring to my scientific work.

In college, I first discovered the world of forest ecology through the lectures of an ecologist, Dr. Jon Waage. When he wasn’t teaching undergraduates, he carried out research on damselfly behavior. I was amazed to learn that he could make a living by sitting at stream edges to record the movements of these aquatic insects. From him, I learned about the world of academic science. He posed seemingly narrow questions that later turned out to relate to much broader issues about life and death, competition and mutualism, and the evolution of life on Earth. Wrestling through the labyrinth of the scientific literature, I learned to trace citations to their sources and recognize the key players in a scientific discussion. Science seemed the right approach to really understand the world.

But what of dance? With my deepening passion for science, I soon fund myself in something of a love triangle, having to choose between very different professions. Parallel with my enthusiastic forays in science, I delighted in the sparks of creativity that flew from each composition in the dance studio, the sense of feeling my body move with others, the messages about life and emotions conveyable on stage, which no scientific paper could communicate. Right after graduation from college, I decided to test out which would be the better profession for me – field biology, manifested in the scholarly persona of Dr. Waage, or modern dance, exemplified by the graceful spirit of Miss Erika.

I first tried on the life of a field biologist. By writing letters to 70 field stations all over the world, and offering my services as a volunteer field assistant, I found a temporary position to help a septuagenarian entomologist (insect biologist). He studied the taxonomy of tropical leaf-feeding beetles and directed a tiny field station in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, in the South Pacific. I accepted with joy. In January of 1978, I arrived at the entrance of the Wau Ecology Institute, in the foothills of the Morobe Province. The field station consisted of a few shabby wooden buildings, a small herbarium and insect collection, and a central table occupied by a chipped coffee pot around which staff gathered each morning to discuss progress on their research projects. I spent the next twelve months on expeditions around the country, thrilled by the stunning diversity of the rainforest. In that rainforest cloister, I felt at home with the people and work I encountered.

After the year in Papua New Guinea was over, it was time to investigate dance. I traveled to Paris, and made contact with a modern dance company, Danse Paris. I first took classes, and was then invited to practice with their troupe. The opportunity to dance for hours at a time and hang out with professional dancers was perfect to test out my potential future profession. After a year in the rainforest, it was a delight to gulp in the cultural offerings that only Paris provides. The art museums, city parks, urban architecture, and evening concerts filled my non-dancing times.

After six months, I had to make a choice. I knew that I could not do both professional science and professional dance. The former demanded years of academic preparation and wildland settings; the latter required years of physical and aesthetic training and an urban homespot. On a sunny morning in April, I sat down with my journals from both locales at a neighborhood café. Over numerous cups of tea, I read through them all and then sat back to decide which was to be my choice. The forest or the stage? As much as I loved the world of dance, the time I spent in the tropical rainforests seemed truer to my own spirit. I felt closer to my biologist colleagues, and more at peace in the forest environment.

I returned to the USA and entered graduate school in forest ecology at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources. I spent a summer in Costa Rica on a field biology program, surrounded by fledgling graduate students and experienced faculty who opened the world of tropical ecology with enthusiasm and expertise. Each had his or her own specialty: hummingbird physiology; beetle distribution; songbird migration. Early on during that course, my eyes looked up to the complex world of the forest canopy – the plants and animals that lived their lives high above the forest floor and were among the most poorly known in the world.

I had the good fortune to encounter another graduate student who was studying canopy interactions. Don Perry had developed modified mountain climbing techniques, and he agreed to ‘show me the ropes’ in exchange for help with his field study. After a month, I was ready to climb on my own and to pursue my own set of canopy questions – activities that would enliven my life for the next three decades.

My canopy research colleagues, students and I have enumerated the rare and often unknown species that dwell on branches and twigs that never appear in ground surveys. I discovered that some trees put out “canopy roots” from their own branches and trunks, which gain access to the arboreal soil that accumulates beneath mats of canopy-dwelling (“epiphytes”). We learned that treetop versions of traditionally terrestrial insects and even earthworms – are found in this canopy-level soil, living out their entire life cycle high above the forest floor. We have measured the amounts of nutrients that the epiphytes intercept and retain from rain, mist, and dust, which can be considerable.

Over the last 30 years, new techniques of canopy access have evolved to include hot-air balloons, treetop walkways, hanging platforms, and 30-story construction cranes. The answers that canopy researchers report in scientific meetings confirm that trees are a critical part of ecosystems, landscapes, and the biosphere. Canopy researchers now quantify the amount of oxygen tree canopies produce, the amount of carbon dioxide they store, the volumes of soil they protect, the amount of water they retain, and the scores of wildlife species they support. Urban foresters have documented the “ecosystem services” provided by trees in urban settings: reduction in noise, temperature, and pollutants. Thus, the growing body of treetop research documents that loss of canopy diversity and function is a loss to the forest as a whole and to the landscapes beyond them.

Over the years, aware of the importance of the forest canopy and forest ecosystems in general to the health of the Earth, I have made deep forays into doing outreach and communication of what I have learned. I am especially interested in reaching “non-traditional” audiences, those who don’t automatically pick up a Natural History magazine, or watch a nature documentary film. Each of these projects involves connecting with other partners. One of my programs involves gathering scientist, urban youth, and scientists to spend time in the field and create rap songs about trees and insects. Another program brings science research projects involving endangered plants and animals into prisons so that incarcerated men and women can contribute to solving environmental problems, even though they are behind bars.

Another set of my partners to help communicate scientific messages are artists. One of my favorites is a wonderful collaboration with a modern dancer and choreographer. On an afternoon last year, I got a telephone call from Jodi Lomask, the Director of the San Francisco-based modern dance troupe. She wanted to make a modern dance about tropical rainforests, but wanted it to be based in science – could she come to my rainforest study sites with me to learn about them? Indeed she could, and did, and this year, we are performing the dance she choreographed while climbing my rainforest study trees to public audiences in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. I feel happy that the two seemingly divergent forces in my life – studying trees and making modern dances – has come together for the sake of protecting rainforests.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a Professor of Biology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and a leader in the scientific field of rainforest canopy research. Nalini created a unique method for rappelling to the top of the canopy using mountaineering equipment and has become known as “The Queen of the Forest Canopy.” She is featured in the Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary “Heroes of the High Frontier.” She is also the author of three books and numerous scientific research articles. 

HER NAME WAS HONG by Jill Robinson, MBE

Jill Robinson moon bear

Her name was Hong – at least that was the name I gave to the first bear I ever saw on one of China’s notorious “bile extraction” farms in 1993.

Going undercover and joining a group of Japanese tourists, I broke away from the group and found stairs leading to a basement below the farm. The vision was shocking — held in “crush” cages, were 32 endangered Asiatic Black Bears – called Moon Bears because of the beautiful yellow crescents on their chests. Nervous “popping” vocalizations echoed around the room and when I looked at their damaged bodies I knew why they were afraid. Here were animals which had been deliberately de-clawed and had their canine teeth brutally hacked away by the farmer who had taken away their defenses to make them easier to “milk.”

Wounds three feet along their bodies from where they had grown into the cage bars, and gaping, infected holes from where crude metal catheters protruded, showed how these gentle, intelligent animals had been “milked,” as machines, for their entire lives – for medicine in Chinese pharmacopoeia which can just as easily and cheaply be replaced by herbs.

At one point I felt something touch my shoulder and spun nervously around to see a bear with her arm stretched through the bars of the cage. Naively I took her paw – and, surprisingly she didn’t rip my arm from the socket, but simply squeezed my fingers whilst our eyes connected in a moment which crossed every barrier of species and understanding. Her message was clear, and whilst today my overwhelming sorrow is of a bear we couldn’t save, Hong — whose name means bear – became the ambassador for a dream which began the China Bear Rescue.

An old Confucion saying “A thousand miles starts with one step” sums up the road for our campaign to bring the unconscionable and unnecessary trade of bear farming to an end – and this story simply sets the stage of how, individually, we can start such a journey. That the power is in every single one of us to right the wrongs of this often unconscionably cruel and ignorant species of humankind — and to change the lives and future of beings who previously had no hope. That, through a combination of blind faith, optimistic ignorance, tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness, the destiny of another species can be changed for the better.

There can be no more proud or joyous feeling than to look into an animals’ eyes, knowing that you have made a difference, rather than turning away, ashamed, at each new vision of despair.

Today, our Sanctuary in Sichuan Province, is bursting at the seams with happy, healthy bears who have put their miserable lives on the farms far behind. Following years of work and negotiations with the Government Departments of Beijing and Sichuan, we finally secured an Agreement to rescue 500 bears and work together to end bear farming in China. To date, over 40 bear farms have been closed, securing 205 bears confiscated into our care — and this month sees more.

Our projects on site are providing “win/win” solutions for animals and the local community to enjoy. Once a bear farm closes, the farmer returns the original license to Animals Asia and receives compensation for his bears. No new licenses are issued, and farmers can never again legally enter this trade. Our Sanctuary creates jobs and salaries for people who previously had no work, sees the use of local equipment and materials, and the purchase of local food and produce, for bears and people alike. Following endorsement from Chinese celebrities and extensive and enthusiastic coverage from local Chinese journalists, growing interest in our China Bear Rescue is being seen far and wide in a country which has only just begun to understand the words and connotations of “animal welfare.” Our Traditional Chinese Medicine Education Packs are also seeing mass circulation to thousands of Doctors and students who are now signing on in droves to our escalating campaign — “Rescue Black Bears — Give up Bear Bile Usage!” Central to the rescue is the development of education programmes which provide a unique opportunity for us to spread a message of respect for all animals, whilst advancing the concept of animal welfare and rights in China.

Admittedly, the road to ending bear farming isn’t easy. Today there are over 7,000 bears who are cruelly caged on farms – and still no Central Government policy calling for a final ban. Therefore as the only group rescuing 500 bears and working “from within”, our evidence is crucial in building the case to end a disgraceful and unnecessary industry.

Having received over 200 victims of bile extraction at our Sanctuary since October 2000, our case is solid – and the evidence on our surgery table is leaving no doubt that the new, so-called humane, methods of obtaining the bears’ bile fluid are no better than the old – and that bears are clearly dying in agony and in significant numbers on the farms.

With each new investigation of the bear farms, and with each new pitiful arrival requiring anything up to 7 hours of surgical repair, we are proving how the so-called “good” farms and “humane” methods of bile extraction are anything but.

In May 2004, the Chinese Government invited the team of Animals Asia to accompany them on an investigation of bear farms in China’s southwest Yunnan Province.  Despite the best efforts of the farmers to convince us all that their methods of captivity and bile extraction had progressed to a humane and pain-free model of excellence, we saw images which made us sick to our stomachs and reduced us to tears.  Bears being exploited and tortured, sick and skeletal animals clearly dying in front of our eyes, abuse, after abuse, after abuse. During the visit I broke down after seeing a shell of an animal which had once been a bear.  Almost naked, with sores all over his body, two huge hernias in his abdomen, and a shrunken skeleton of a face – I looked into his eyes and could only say sorry, because there was nothing else I could do or say to help him.  This is the image that drives us.

Indeed on that same trip, the farmers had fooled no-one.  The Government officials who accompanied us were clearly disturbed and the report we have produced is now circulating across the country – in our ongoing effort to extinguish a practice which should never have begun.

Reports are not enough — dialogue, hard evidence and public presentations must escalate our goal. Recent workshop held in Beijing attended by the Government, by local and international experts – and by bear farmers themselves – saw an aggressive afternoon of presentations and dialogue.  The farmers lied and lied again, making bold accusations against Animals Asia’s work and investigations – and were immediately shot down in flames, with their claims in tatters, when we presented hard, compelling and up to the minute evidence of the realities of the trade.

In truth, no-one can tell the bears’ tragic story better than the victims themselves, and the images of free and happy bears tumbling into bamboo forest, and playing with their friends touch the heart and show that our voyage is on course and is the driving force within China for bringing bear farming to an end. Victims who arrived violently aggressive and consumed with pain and fear are, today, showing how stoic and truly forgiving this species can be. Ambassadors like gentle three-legged Andrew, fun loving

Jasper, mischievous Banjo and sweet elderly Franzi are all proof that miracles do happen. As their health has improved, so too has their confidence – and their eyes have gradually taken on the trusting look of animals who have put their years of torture behind and who understand that life is worth living again.

At Animals Asia, our belief is simple. By helping the individual bears, we can work towards our higher goal of helping them all as a species and ending bear farming by the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. One quote from Tolstoy drives me personally on this journey … “Every man and living creature has the sacred right to the gladness of springtime.”

Jill Robinson is founder of Animals Asia, devoted to ending the barbaric practice of bear bile farming and improving the welfare of animals in China and Vietnam. Through her work with the bears, and her many other programs, she is at the forefront of changing the way animals are being perceived and treated on that continent. In 1998 she was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth in recognition of her services to animal welfare in Asia. In 2002, she received the Genesis Award in the United States – the only major media and arts award concerning animal issues.

HEART by Julia Butterfly Hill

Julia Butterfly Hill and Luna

The root word for courage comes from the French and means “heart.” True courage can only come when we are speaking out or taking action from the heart. For me, this seed of understanding took root and began to grow in December of 1997.

While traveling west with friends, I experienced the ancient redwoods in person for the first time. I was deeply and profoundly touched by their beauty, majesty, and ancient wisdom. I felt like I had walked into the most sacred of cathedrals.

A few weeks later, I found out that over 97 percent of these trees—that grow to be 200 to 300 feet tall and 2,000 to 3,000 years old—have already been logged and that they are continuing to be cut down with highly destructive industrial logging practices. I could not believe this was happening. I felt like I should do something to try to help stop this atrocity from continuing, but I didn’t know how or what to do.

Then, I heard that people were living in trees in order to protect them from being cut down and to try to bring attention to the issue. I thought to myself, “I could do that!” I grew up with two brothers and no sisters, so I knew how to climb trees! I wasn’t quite sure how to be an activist. I wasn’t even sure what that meant exactly. But tree climbing was something I knew how to do, so I volunteered.

When I climbed 180 feet up into the branches of a 200-foot-tall, over 1,000-year-old redwood tree, now known as “Luna,” I thought I would be there for three weeks to a month. It turned out to be over two years, 738 days to be exact, before my feet would touch the ground again. In that time, I faced many challenges that left my heart, spirit, and body broken. There were so many moments where I wanted to give up. Yet every time I felt myself in this space, I would pray and ask for strength. The funny thing is I would always get sent more challenges. Finally, I realized that I was receiving what I had asked for because the only way we get stronger is through exercise, including the exercise of heart, mind, and spirit. Every challenge then became an opportunity for learning and growth.

It was in this way that I realized that every moment, every day, every choice is an opportunity for courage. Every time I choose to act consciously out of my love for my world, no matter what the status quo says, no matter how difficult the choice might be, I am living a life that has meaning, joy, and true power. No matter how dark things in our world seem sometimes, I am the only one who can consciously choose to shine a light of caring, commitment, and courage. It really is a moment, by moment, choice. Yes, we need the “big” acts to encourage and inspire us, but it is only through looking at these as examples to empower ourselves, that we find the extraordinary person that lives within the heart of each and every one of us.

Julia Butterfly HillJulia Butterfly Hill climbed the 1,000-year-old Redwood to stop loggers from cutting it down. Little did she know she’d remain in its canopy, defying the scare tactics of the logging company, for two full years. Julia received international attention and went on to become an international speaker, author, and life coach.