Category: On nature


Saving the planet begins on our plates

By Midge Raymond,

It’s frustrating to go to an fundraiser for an animal rescue and find animals on the menu. Many organizations that believe in saving cats and dogs unfortunately do not believe in sparing cows, pigs, or chickens. Slowly, education and progress is happening — Animal Place‘s Food for Thought program offers wonderful tools to help organizations see that all animals matter — yet many organizations still resist.

Likewise, very few environmental organizations make the connection between animal agriculture (which is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined) and the environment — and yet this is a vital connection to make, especially during a time when our government is rolling back environmental protections. We as citizens and consumers can do so much good simply by making wiser choices — not only in how we get to work but what we put on our plates. Consider these statistics, from the Cowspiracy website (Cowspiracy is a must-see film about the connections between environmental degradation and animal agriculture):

  • Even without fossil fuels, we will exceed our 565 gigatons CO2e limit by 2030, all from raising animals.
  • Animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually, compared to 70-140 billion from fracking.
  • Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of the water in the US.
  • 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef.
  • 5% of water consumed in the US is by private homes; 55% of water consumed in the US is for animal agriculture.
  • Livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total land.
  • Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.
  • 3/4 of the world’s fisheries are exploited or depleted — we could see fishless oceans by 2048.
  • For every 1 pound of fish caught, up to 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-catch.

There is good news, however: Increasing numbers of animal rescues see the myriad benefits of protecting all animals, and some environmental organizations do realize that saving the planet means being plant-based. I reached out to many of them to learn how they came to this realization and how they deal with those who challenge them … and most of all, to thank them.

All rescue and environmental organizations need to consider their food policies in order to truly do their best for animals and the planet. Oceanic Preservation Society executive director Louis Psihoyos puts it well: “You have to walk the walk in the environmental movement. I don’t believe in gray areas in this issue…People are starting to understand that the best way to make changes for the environment is to change what’s on your plate.” And GREY2K USA president Christine A. Dorchak says, “Helping dogs while hurting cows, pigs, or chickens just doesn’t make sense.”

I spoke with Barbara Troyer of Food for Thought, as well as the executive directors of Alley Cat Allies, Animals Asia, the Beagle Freedom Project, Foster Parrots, Grey2K, Oceanic Preservation Society, St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, Sanctuary One, and the Washington Federation of Animal Care and Control Agencies. I ended up so inspired by their passion for and dedication to the animals, the environment, and to making the world a better place. You can learn more about all these wonderful organizations in these two articles in Barefoot Vegan Magazine and in VegNews.

Strange Company: A guest post by Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Strange Company

Recently I watched a program on strange animal partnerships. The first story featured an old blind horse and the goat that adopted him. Each morning the goat would lead the horse out to graze, skirting any obstacles, and all day they would stay close together. In the evening the horse would follow the goat back to the barn. This was the pattern for several years, until the horse died, and the goat, seemingly bereft, died soon after. There were other odd companions: a deer and a cat, a cheetah and an impala, and most famously, Tara the elephant and Bella the dog. And there were all sorts of unlikely mothers, animals willing to nurse just about anything. My favorite was a calico cat diligently raising a litter of skunks.

One scientist, Temple Grandin, posited that caretaking is an attribute specific to mammals, that our warm-bloodedness keeps us connected on profound levels. However, another story in this program focused on a goose smitten with a tortoise. Not only did this goose bring food to the tortoise, it attacked any other animal that came too close. There was also a story about a barn owl that cavorted with a black cat, and a crow that assumed the care of a kitten.

Maybe it’s not so odd that creatures raised together, even mortal enemies, will overcome their natural instincts and bond instead of fight. But what about animals that link in the wild? In the last segment of the program, a dog chanced upon an abandoned fawn, and they became immediate, playful friends. This alliance lasted for years, the dog waiting patiently for the deer’s inevitable return.

The central questions raised in this documentary were: Do animals feel compassion? Are they empathetic? The answer is fairly obvious, based on the evidence presented, but it invites a deeper question: what, from an animal’s point of view, does compassion feel like? Of course we can never know this, cannot enter the mind of a crow or cheetah, can never leave the frustrating confines of our own consciousness, which is why we must leave room for staggering possibilities.

From what I’ve seen, there is no limit to a dog’s ability to forgive; dogs are actually inclined to forgive: our oversights, our neglect, even our abuse. Dogs always want and expect the best from us. There is no love more unconditional than a dog’s love. Even cats, in their own haughty way, forgive us our humanness when they bunt our heads or settle on our laps. And the unions we enjoy with non-domestic animals are no less rewarding, and often more powerful, on account of their strangeness, as evidenced in that tender video many of us saw of an elephant seal cuddling with a young woman.

There is another video, a more recent one, of a spider monkey showing a person how to crush leaves. Certain plants have insecticidal properties, and monkeys in their canny, unfathomable way, will crush the leaves of these plants and rub them on their fur. In this video, the monkey seems to be trying to teach this method, placing leaves in a human’s hand and then pushing the fingers closed. The monkey seems quite adamant that the human needs to learn this. It’s one of the most touching videos I’ve ever seen because it shows how little we know of the animals we have come to depend on, for companionship, for service, even for help with psychological disorders.

There are three categories in fact, three ways we classify the animals we employ for our own needs: service animals, like seeing eye dogs and miniature horses; comfort animals, like those brought into hospitals and assisted-living facilities; and therapy animals, a group comprised of animals that help calm our demons. Any sort of creature can be considered a therapy animal. There is a parrot, for instance, that accompanies a schizophrenic man named Jim on his daily excursions. Jim adopted this bird after it had been dropped off, in bad shape, at a pet store. Jim nursed the bird back to health, and the bird apparently reciprocated. You see, whenever Jim experienced a psychotic episode coming on, he would pace his apartment, smacking his head with his hands. “Calm down,” he would tell himself. “Be good, Jim. You’re okay, Jim. You’re fine.” The parrot, hearing these words, began to utter them, and Jim found that the words, coming from another source, had a far more calming effect. The parrot also began to nurture Jim in other ways, sensing a psychotic break at the onset and tucking itself under Jim’s neck. We are warned against anthropomorphism, and I do think we are presumptuous in attributing human emotions to animals, in limiting them to the paltry depths of own feelings.

Compassion must be a far different thing in the animal kingdom, some primal, boundless urge we will never fathom.

I do know this: If I had the forgiveness of a dog, the intuition of a parrot and the kindness of a monkey, I would be one very special human.

Jean Ryan is the author of the short story collection Survival Skills and the essay collection Strange Company. Learn more about Survival Skills here, and visit Jean’s website to find other publications and posts. 

Happy World Penguin Day!

By Midge Raymond,

One thing I’m celebrating on World Penguin Day is having met my seventh species of penguin: the little penguin. Ever since meeting four species of penguins in Antarctica, I’ve become a little obsessed: Next I went to Argentina to volunteer with the University of Washington’s Penguin Sentinels, counting the Magellanic penguins of Punto Tombo. On more recent visit to the Galápagos Islands, I was able to see the elusive and endangered Galápagos penguin. And last year, one of the best things about visiting Australia as part of the My Last Continent tour was meeting my seventh species.

The little penguin is also called the “fairy penguin” in Australia, and in New Zealand it’s known as the “blue penguin” or “white-flippered penguin.”

All names fit this little bird, as it is no more than a foot tall, and its feathers are a lovely bluish-gray and white. These penguins appear in several places in Australia, one of them being Manly, where you can see signs like this on the sidewalks, alongside indicators for bikes and pedestrians:

little-penguin

The little penguins forage at sea all day and come ashore when darkness falls. One of the best places to see them is the (terribly touristy) Penguin Parade on Phillip Island, which is a two-hour journey from Melbourne and completely worth it, especially if you can ignore the other tourists (some of whom are respectful, far too many of whom are noisy, take photos (which aren’t allowed), and otherwise flaunt the rules of the park and disturb the birds).

Once it gets dark, no photos or videos are allowed, but on a daylight walk we glimpsed this little penguin, near the natural and man-made burrows created to provide nesting opportunities for them.

Years ago, the little penguins’ numbers here on Phillip Island decreased dramatically when a bridge was built and humans began inhabiting and vacationing on the island, bringing foxes, dogs, and other predators, including traffic; even now, many penguins are run over by cars. Foxes have now been eliminated, and while the birds’ numbers are still down in Australia, we can hope the conservation efforts pay off. One effort is the building of nests for them; below, you can just barely see a little penguin inside one of these man-made burrows.

The little penguins are adorable to watch. After the sun sets, they come in from the water in “rafts” — groups from five to ten penguins to dozens — because there is safety in numbers, and they shake off the water and waddle up the sand to the scrubby brush where they have their nests. Perhaps because they’re so small, they always look as though they’re walking in a huge hurry, as if being chased. (If you do visit Phillip Island, sit tight and wait until the crowds disperse and until the rangers tell you at least three times that it’s time to go. This is when it gets quiet and peaceful, and you can hear nothing but the sounds of the penguins scuttling to their nests and calling to their mates.)

Another place to see the little penguins is much closer to Melbourne is the breakwater at St. Kilda, where the penguins come to shore every night after sunset. Guides are there to enforce similar rules (no photography, no approaching the penguins), and it’s about a half-hour away from downtown Melbourne by bus or light rail.

To celebrate World Penguin Day, here are a few links where you can learn more and support conservation efforts for penguins around the world:

UW Penguin Sentinels

Oceanites

The Penguin Counters

Wishing you a very happy World Penguin Day!

Announcing the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize!

By Midge Raymond,

We are delighted to announce the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature: Katy Yocom, for her novel THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR.

Judge JoeAnn Hart writes, “THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR begins with a focused lens on the endangered Bengal tiger then expands its reach with every page to reveal the interconnectedness of the natural world and fragility of all life. Weaving together the worn threads of ecological balance, this ambitious and moving novel addresses scarcity, climate change, family dynamics, cultural conflict, human accountability, women’s economic autonomy, and most of all, love, in all its wondrous forms. This is a story not just about saving the tigers, but ourselves.”

Katy Yocom was born and raised in Atchison, Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she has lived ever since. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon.com, The Louisville Review, decomP magazinE, StyleSubstanceSoul, and Louisville Magazine, among other publications.

In conducting research for her novel, THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, she traveled to India, funded by a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She has also been awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council and has served as writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Crosshatch Hill House, and Hopscotch House. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poetry has been translated into Bulgarian. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.

She lives with her husband in Louisville, Kentucky, where she helps direct Spalding’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Learn more about Katy on her website and via Facebook.

As the Siskiyou Prize winner, Katy will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA and a $1,000 cash prize.

It was a very competitive contest this year, and we would also like to congratulate the finalists and semifinalists:

 

FINALISTS

Small Small Redemption: Essays by Sangamithra Iyer

The Heart of the Sound: A memoir by Marybeth Holleman (published by Bison Books)

Song of the Ghost Dog: A YA novel by Sharon Piuser

SEMIFINALISTS

Karstland: A novel by Caroline Manring

Rumors of Wolves: A novel by C.K. Adams

The Harp-Maker of Exmoor: A novel by Hazel Prior

 

Thanks to everyone who submitted and to everyone who writes with the goal of making this world a better place. And please stay tuned for announcements for the next Siskiyou Prize!

 

The amazing Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

By Midge Raymond,

When we were in Australia this fall, we were thrilled to encounter this pair of Sulphur-crested cockatoos while walking around in Manly.

cockatoos

We were especially happy to see these birds in the wild after having previously met them only in fiction in Love and Ordinary Creatures, Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s gorgeous novel about a Sulphur-crested cockatoo named Caruso. In Gwyn’s novel, Caruso had been captured from the wild and sold as a pet (fortunately, this is no longer legal; the novel is set in the early 1990s when this was still happening to exotic birds); having the opportunity in Australia to watch them in their natural habitat, foraging for food, staying close to their mates, and cawing loudly wherever they go, was wonderful.

cockatoo

It also reminded us what an important book Love and Ordinary Creatures is, for giving voice to a species of animal that is so often misunderstood. Gwyn captures this helplessness, longing, and angst so well in this novel, a love story that transcends species.

Love and Ordinary Creatures was inspired by Gwyn’s own journey to Australia with her husband more than fifteen years ago.

We were eating lunch in a delicatessen when a young Australian woman with long, tanned legs and tousled blond hair pedaled up and stopped in front of the deli window. A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo was perched on the handlebars of her bike. Dismounting, she walked over to the parrot and learned toward him with puckered lips. Simultaneously, he lengthened his neck and raised his beak. Much to my amazement, they kissed— after which she came inside to pick up her order. While she was gone, the cockatoo kept his eyes on her. Not once did he look away. Not once did he try to fly off, even though his legs, I noticed, were untethered. A few minutes later, food in hand, the young woman left the deli, the cockatoo fluttering his wings and squawking with delight as she approached. “Now, that’s a bird in love,” I said to my husband when the two of them cycled off.

Learn more about Love and Ordinary Creatures here, and check out the novel’s book club kit for more insights.

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