Category: On reading


Writing for Cecil: A guest post by Mindy Mejia

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dragon Keeper author Mindy Mejia, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Writing for Cecil

A few weeks ago a building near my office was overrun by police cars and media vans. I didn’t know what was going on until someone told me, complete with a meaningful look in one of the spare cubicles, “That’s where the dentist’s office is.”

I didn’t need to be told which dentist, because in the prior three days “dentist” had become the country’s newest dirty word. That’s all we knew about Walter Palmer. He was a dentist who enjoyed traveling the world and killing magnificent animals, that is, until he killed the wrong one.

As a vegetarian I’ve had mixed feelings about the Cecil backlash. Obviously it was a horrific, completely unjustifiable crime committed by a total asshat. Cecil’s death was senseless, cruel, and exacerbated by the likely slaughter of his twenty-four cubs as a new male takes over his pride. On the other hand, I live in the Midwest, where a bird flu epidemic has forced the extermination of forty-eight million chickens in the last several months. Let me say that again. Forty-eight million chickens. That’s the total human population of California, Oregon, and Washington combined, and other than a few brief clips of some poultry barns on the news, who even heard about these deaths, let alone cared? Personally, I can’t wrap my head around a scale that weighs the lives of twenty-five lions as greater than the lives of forty-eight million birds. As a writer, however, that scale—like everything else illogical about our species—fascinates me.

There are insights here for anyone writing about animals, but especially those who are working within an environmental theme. Cecil’s death showed us that people care. They are willing to become invested and even help spur social change if their sympathies are triggered. But what is the trigger? How can a writer tap into that amazing human-animal connection?

First, let me be clear that I’m no expert. I possess no degrees that end in -ology. I’m just a writer who has spent some time examining the relationship between people and the other species who live on this planet. In my opinion, the catalyst for the public reaction to Cecil’s death distills down to three main components: the Rarity factor, the Apex Predator factor, and the Charismatic Mega Vertebrate factor. Let’s break them down, one by one.

Rarity

Rare Suburban Hosta Cat

Rare Suburban Hosta Cat

Why is gold worth more than water? Why do we value a lion’s life more than a chicken’s? After all, most of us directly depend on chickens as part of our food chain while lions have comparatively little impact on our survival. So why care about some lion halfway across the world? The answer is partly psychological—we are drawn to the rare and exotic—but also partly legislative. Cecil’s life was protected within the borders of his refuge and that law was the only thing that made his killing a crime. In the U.S. the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 and it mandated that the lives of threatened animals must be protected. Scarcity has become a kind of virtue; it makes certain animal’s lives more precious. To see this effect in reverse, look at the Obama administration’s decision to remove gray wolves in the Great Lakes region from the list. Almost immediately Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan created hunting seasons to “manage their wolf populations” and fifteen hundred wolves were killed as a result. Less scarcity? Less value.

Of course, it’s easy to highlight an animal’s rarity when writing about an endangered species, but what if you’re not? The principle can still work even if your character is a more common animal, as C.S. Malerich demonstrates in her short story “Meat.” In the story, the protagonist’s father decides to raise an animal for slaughter to provide ethically-minded food for his family. Malerich never reveals the animal’s species and it becomes a guessing game for the reader. Could the animal be a cow? Certain scenes seem to suggest it at first, but as the story progresses, the narrator gives the animal increasingly sophisticated behaviors and counterintuitive physical characteristics. Is it a monkey? An emu? The reader’s imagination races to the exotic, almost in defiance of the undeniably human-like character that is emerging.

“Meat” taps into the rarity factor by refusing to tell us if the animal is rare or not. We are unbalanced by not knowing the societal worth that has already been placed on this life and seek desperately to recover that label so we can apply the pre-determined value and move on. When we realize Meat’s species will not be revealed, the real question emerges: why do we value some animals more than others?

 

Apex Predator

Danger raises the stakes

Danger raises the stakes

 

Aside from his almost-endangered status, Cecil was also the king of the jungle and, let’s be honest, we love our kings. Humans are the ultimate predators on planet Earth, at least for the time being, and our imaginations gravitate toward other apex predators—animals that preside over the top of their food chains. Look at Shark Week. Grizzly Man. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Yes, a predator can be dead for sixty-six million years and we still happily break box office records to watch their re-creations strut and slaughter on the big screen.

Whenever I talk to readers about The Dragon Keeper, my novel about a Komodo dragon’s virgin birth, their questions usually always cycle around to the species’ rumored poisonous bite. Sure, dragons can spontaneously reproduce, but they can really kill you, right? As writers we want to explore the animal behind the diet, but don’t ignore your animal’s predatory instincts; they’ll do wonders to heighten suspense. In every scene I wrote with Jata, the book’s Komodo, I knew she had the power to wreak havoc. She could have bitten her zookeeper’s hand off during feeding scenes or ambushed her in the exhibit. I used real-life accounts of Komodo attacks from the headlines to add tension to the friendship that developed between the woman and the dragon, to remind the reader that, at any moment, their delicate relationship could shatter.

Even if you’re writing about a herbivore, you can utilize the predator principle for drawing reader interest and raising the stakes in a story. Every animal can become formidable in the right situation. Look at the deer who charged a jogger in Germany in 2011. Or the gaze of raccoons that attacked a Washington jogger in 2012. Or the repeated barred owl attacks on runners earlier this year in Oregon. Hmm. The secret to raising the stakes might be a track suit…

 

Charismatic Mega Vertebrate

Big personality = Big appeal

Big personality = Big appeal

Perhaps the biggest reason Cecil’s death caused such an outcry was because he was Cecil, not some random lion unacquainted with the human world. He had a name, a radio collar, and an unofficial fan club, and he’d attracted this human following because he was a charismatic mega vertebrate.

This is the term used by zoos to describe their poster exhibits. Lions, tigers, and bears, yes, but don’t forget gorillas, elephants, and dolphins. These species, through their larger-than-life personalities, human-like characteristics, or sheer vitality, are why visitors pay the price of admission. Simply put, they keep their zoo’s lights on. Knut the polar bear was responsible for a thirty percent increase in attendance the year he was born at the Berlin zoo. On the flip side, the Copenhagen zoo caused a worldwide controversy when they killed Marius the giraffe. The lesson? Charisma counts.

The good news here is that a writer can employ these characterization techniques to turn any vertebrate into a charismatic one. (Sorry, nonvertebrates. I’ll need to see a really compelling jellyfish or worm story before I can be convinced this strategy works for you.) An animal should be approached just like any other character in your book. Build their backstory, their mannerisms, their quirks, and then give their actions weight in the narrative. Make them integral to and capable of changing the world you’ve created. Don’t be afraid of anthropomorphizing. We naturally humanize animals in order to feel closer to them, so let your human characters forge those connections and your readers will follow suit. To learn characterization from masters on both ends of the spectrum, grab a copy of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Charlotte’s Web. These books are courses onto themselves.

Lastly, give your animal a great name, a name that endears and endures, that shines a spotlight on this individual character and lets them climb, trot, or swim into their rightful place in your readers’ hearts.* It won’t help Cecil—or those forty-eight million chickens—but the more readers your book reaches, the greater the odds that a future animal’s life could be safeguarded as something worth preserving.

*Note that Wilbur and Fern are already taken. For alternative popular names from the year 1912, try Albert, Mildred, or Frances.

A Q&A with Dogland author Jacki Skole

By Midge Raymond,

A Q&A with Dogland author Jacki Skole

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A: I didn’t set out to write a book so much as I set out to discover why the puppy I adopted from a small rescue organization seemed unusually submissive and fearful of men, and why she—a dog from North Carolina—was up for adoption in a New Jersey garden supply store.  At the time I began to dig for answers, I was in the midst of a career crisis: Should I pursue a doctoral degree in education? Could I be content as a stay-at-home mom teaching a few college classes a semester? What was my purpose?

As I uncovered little bits about Galen’s past and learned about the scope of the dog problem in the United States, I realized there was a story that needed telling—not just about all the healthy and adoptable dogs being killed in shelters (that story’s been told), but about what’s being done—and what more can be done—to save lives and stop the killing. I now had my purpose.

I spent about two years reporting and writing the book. My favorite part of this journey has been meeting the amazing people who are in the trenches saving lives, be it through increasing access to spay/neuter surgeries for some of America’s poorest pet owners or finding new ways to promote shelter adoptions. For so many of these people, their work is wholly volunteer, squeezed in around their day jobs but done because of their deep love for dogs and their inability to stand idle while so many suffer.

 

jacki skole

 

Q: Tell us about some of the research you did for Dogland.

A: Some of the toughest reporting I had to do for Dogland was to visit several of the South’s under-funded, under-staffed, decades-old public shelters. I knew that many of the dogs I saw there—beautiful, healthy, vibrant dogs—would be euthanized. But I also had the opportunity to visit shelters where every healthy dog was cared for and socialized until some man or some woman walked through the shelter door, peered into the dog’s kennel, and decided that dog would have a home.

I got a lot of mental whiplash reporting this story because it seemed like for every potential solution to an existing problem, that solution sparked unintended consequences that created more problems—or at least resistance to the solution. For instance, low-cost spay/neuter clinics would seem the perfect solution to increasing spay/neuter surgery rates. But they are often opposed by veterinarians. Sometimes the opposition stems from greed, but sometimes it’s because veterinarians have seen spay/neuter clinics morph into full-service veterinary clinics that can threaten a private vet’s livelihood. As one supporter of low-cost spay/neuter clinics told me, “If our goal is spay/neuter, then every time we are doing something that is not a spay, not a neuter, then we’re not working towards our goal.”

Perhaps what surprised me most, as a person outside the animal welfare world, is how much animosity and infighting exists among the players inside that world—at the expense of the animals. In fact, at an annual conference sponsored by the Best Friends Animal Society, one of the sessions included a discussion on the importance of collaboration. Let go of egos, quit vilifying others, and walk in one another’s shoes was the message delivered to conference goers.

Q: Does the United States really have a “dog problem”?

A: Yes. When more than a million healthy, adoptable dogs are euthanized in animal shelters each year, we have a dog problem. And of course, that doesn’t count all the dogs killed by their owners or who die as strays having been dumped on the sides of roads, in wooded areas, or wherever people choose to rid themselves of unwanted pets.

Q: Isn’t shelter euthanasia on the decrease?

A: It is, and that’s wonderful. But we’ve hit a plateau. Animal welfare groups say about twenty million dogs and cats were euthanized in American shelters in the 1970s. Now, more than four decades later, that number is down to about four million. But that’s an outrageous number, especially when you consider that animal welfare groups say 90 percent of those are healthy and adoptable.

Q: What’s the root of the problem? 

A: The root is that too many pet owners do not spay and neuter their dogs—thus there are too many accidental litters. The solution would seem straightforward: Have more pet owners get their dogs fixed. Unfortunately, issues of accessibility and affordability make that more easily said than done. According to an organization called Spay FIRST!, fewer than ten states can claim to offer pet owners accessible and affordable spay/neuter. The organization defines “access” as having a veterinary clinic, a low-cost spay/neuter facility, or a program that transports dogs to a clinic within fifty miles of a pet owner’s home. It defines “affordability” as keeping the cost less than what a low- or minimum-wage worker makes in a day—in some cases making it free. Then there’s also the issue of education. For many dog owners, especially those who grew up in rural or farming communities, spaying and neutering dogs was something that traditionally just wasn’t done, so it is something that needs to be taught.

Q: Why do we often hear the situation for dogs—in terms of shelter euthanasia—is worse in the South than in any other region of the country?  

A: In part, it’s an issue of numbers—the South has a large population—including a large dog-owning population which itself has historical roots—and a large percentage of Southerners live in poverty. Thus the issues of accessibility and affordability are ever-present. That historical relationship stems from the region’s agrarian history. Dogs were quite useful on the farm—they had a host of jobs, from protecting the homestead to accompanying their owners on hunts. Everyone had them, and no one fixed them. It just wasn’t something that was done—the American Veterinary Medical Association didn’t even establish standards for spay/neuter until 1923. And still, by the 1970s, only 10 percent of pet dogs and 1 percent of pet cats were fixed. Dogs also tended to live outside the house, so if a dog had puppies it’s not like a family went from one dog in the house to nine or ten. They lived outside—they were animals. They were property. They were not pets—certainly not this notion we have today of companion animals.

Q: If more people rescued animals from shelters, rather than bought from breeders or pet stores, could we solve this problem? 

A: No, though it would certainly help. As I heard over and over again, we have to “turn off the spigot.” Stop the procreation. The other thing I heard from shelter workers repeatedly was, “We’re adopting them out one and a time, and they’re making them eight, nine, ten at a time.”

Q: How do we, as a society, make spay/neuter more affordable and accessible?

A: First, bring the price of the surgery down. This can be done with more low-cost clinics that specialize in high-volume spay/neuter surgery. And it can be done by creating state programs, like New Jersey’s Animal Population Control program, that help fund the surgery for low-income pet owners and those who adopt from shelters.

Second, make the surgery more accessible. Mobile units. More low-cost clinics. Have private vets donate space in their clinics one morning a week to low-cost, high-volume surgeries. People can donate to low-cost spay/neuter clinics so the clinics can offer low-income pet owners deeper discounts.

Third, through education. Teach people about the benefits of fixing a dog to the animal’s health and behavior, and the consequences of not fixing a dog to overpopulation.

Q: Many people who rescue dogs probably wish they knew their dog’s history. What made you actually seek it out? 

A: With my first rescue—Gryffin—I always wondered what his life was like before he was found in a box on the side of an Atlanta-area highway. He, too, had some little oddities—he was afraid of garbage bags and he disliked dogs who were boxers. If we were walking down the street or if we were in the dog park, the only breed he would have a negative reaction to was the boxer. But I never did anything—I just wondered.

With Galen, there was something about her submissiveness that was so extreme … and then the timing was right in my life. I was having a mini-mid-career crisis, and reporting this book seemed to be a way for me to move in a direction that had purpose.

Q: You’ve said that Galen could be the poster-puppy for America’s dog problem. What do you mean?

A: Galen was born to a dog who wasn’t spayed because her family couldn’t afford it. The family’s home also didn’t have a fenced-in yard, so when she—her name is Daisy—was outside, she was tied to a tree along the side of the house. Daisy’s owner told me that she didn’t intend to breed Daisy. What happened was that when Daisy was in one of her heat cycles, a neighbor’s dog impregnated her. The result was a seven-pup litter that the family could not afford to care for and that it couldn’t give away. So, the owner and her son dropped the puppies at the shelter when they were six weeks old. But that litter was lucky—they were seen by a rescue organization that pulled them, had them fostered, and had them transported to New Jersey.

 

9781618220387-Perfect-F2-V2

 

 

Writing Conferences: A guest post by Jennifer Caloyeras

By Midge Raymond,

This guest post is courtesy of Strays author Jennifer Caloyeras, whose blog you can follow on her website. Enjoy!

What’s in it for you at a writing conference?

Each time I peruse the latest edition of Poets & Writers magazine, I see the endless amount of writing conferences offered across the globe, which got me thinking: Why should writers attend writing conferences?

I’ve attended a handful of these conferences (later this week, I’ll be at the SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – annual conference in Los Angeles), and I’ve compiled a list of benefits these conferences have to offer both seasoned writers as well as those just starting out.

What you can gain by attending a writing conference:

1. Networking: Conferences boast hundreds to thousands of attendees, depending on the type. Either way, you meet tons of people. You’ll find writers working in a similar genre, in a similar city, or perhaps you’ll meet your next writing group member!

2. Access: Most writing conferences have established speakers who are active members in the publishing world. Writers, agents, and publishers are all in attendance. Inevitably, one of the questions that is always asked by someone in the audience is, “Can I send you my query?” And I have to say, many agents and publishers will give you something specific to write in the subject line of an email to gain direct access to them so that you can forward them a query letter and they’ll connect it to your attendance at a specific conference.

3. Exposure: Most conferences have a designated time when writers can sell their work to the other conference attendees. If you’re a published writer, this is a great time to practice your sales pitch as well as answer questions about the writing process. And if you’re just starting out, you can walk around and speak with scores of other writers and ask them questions about their publishing experience and their books.

4. They’re valuable: The speakers at conferences have all prepared something very specific to talk to you about, such as character development, how to land an agent, how Excel can be used to track your submissions, and how to book gigs at your local library. There is always more to learn, and there are always new ways to reach out to readers. I keep all my notes from these various conferences and reference them often.

5. They’re fun! There’s plenty of time to socialize with other writers, and lots of conferences will have an evening out where you can leave the notebooks at home and just have a night of fun!

So, how do you pick a writing conference that’s right for you?

Check out the back pages of Poets & Writers magazine.

Go to New Pages for a list of upcoming conferences by state.

strays cover

An early review of Jacki Skole’s DOGLAND…

By Midge Raymond,

A review of Jacki Skole’s DOGLAND: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Dog Problem

by Kimberly Spanjol, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LMHC, Humane Education Learning Programs (H.E.L.P.)

It’s time to wake up, America.

Americans love dogs. I woke up watching Good Morning America on May 20, 2015. At the time I was about halfway into reading Jacki Skole’s seminal book, Dogland.

9781618220387-Perfect-F2-V2

The story that played out on my television screen was of two Colombian National Police Officers who performed a daring rescue of a dog who was caught in rapid waters. The dog was moving fast and bobbing and disappearing under the waves. The two brave officers, clearly risking their own lives, finally intercepted the struggling pooch and pulled him to safety. They performed CPR on the riverbank as the camera caught the dog’s limp and nearly lifeless body as it revived. The newscasters were celebrating and rightfully commended the police officers on a dangerous rescue well done. I was also incredibly grateful to witness the compassion and kindness displayed by these officers.

It left me wondering why we Americans who love dogs so much, who are so happy when we see feel-good stories like these and who spend billions of dollars yearly on our pets, continue to allow the mass euthanization of thousands of healthy, adoptable pets every day in our nation’s shelters.

Read Dogland to understand why. We will never adopt our way out of the killing. Companion animal overpopulation is a multi-faceted problem that requires multi-faceted solutions. Most of all, it requires that we all become educated and do our part to eliminate the senseless suffering and death of countless sentient beings. Suffering that extends to both animals and people. As Dogland rightfully points out, non-human animals can’t thrive if people aren’t thriving, too.

The first way out of the problem in our nation’s shelters is to know the plight of homeless pets. Thank you to Jacki Skole for taking the steps to understand this complex issue and for writing this important book to inform the rest of us. The question is what we, as a nation of animal lovers, will now do with this information. My hope is that Dogland compels us all to truly work together to stop this senseless problem. Animal protection is one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time. Once you are aware of the daily suffering animals endure, you can’t not know. Not looking at animal suffering doesn’t make it go away. Education and compassionate, informed action is what makes it go away. We all need to do our part. We all need to wake up, America.

Ms. Skole’s dog Galen was the inspiration for Dogland. I hope that, just as Galen wakes up the author’s daughters every day with licks and love, Galen will also wake up our nation through this seminal work.

 

Kimberly Spanjol, Ph.D., BCBA, LMHC, is a forensic psychologist, doctoral level Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D), and New York State Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) with more than 20 years of experience working with children. She is also a founder of Youth Animal Protectors (YAP) in New York City, an organization that teaches children and teens empathy, compassion, problem solving, and related social emotional skills through learning about animal protection issues. YAP Club empowers young people by raising awareness and developing a greater understanding of others’ perspectives – both animal and human – in exploring how choices impact local and global communities.

To learn more about DOGLAND, coming in August, click here

A Q&A with Strays author Jennifer Caloyeras

By Midge Raymond,

A Q&A with Strays author Jennifer Caloyeras

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A: I had been working as the dog columnist for the Los Feliz Ledger for about seven years. Over the course of my research, I wrote a column about K-9 connection, a program that pairs at-risk teens with shelter dogs. I absolutely loved this program and thought the premise would make a great young adult novel. I also had my own experience with a very challenging rescue pit bull. He was my inspiration for writing the character of Roman.

strays cover

Q: Tell us more about the dog who inspired Roman.

A: Roman was inspired by our own rescue pit bull, Willie. We didn’t know Willie was a pit bull when we adopted him—he was only eight weeks old, and we were told he was a “shepherd mix.” His strong personality began to come out in the following weeks. He went through almost a year of intensive training with over five Los Angeles-based trainers (including the famous Dog Whisperer.) Unlike with Roman, we weren’t able to redirect Willie’s behavior and, in a heartbreaking decision, we made a plan to relinquish the dog to Brandon Fouche, an amazing dog behavioralist in Los Angeles who rehabilitates homeless people’s dogs. Imagine my surprise a few years later when I was conducting research for my column when I came across a front page photo of Willie and an accompanying article describing how he is instrumental in helping to rehabilitate these dogs. He had a bigger calling in life, and I’m so glad he found it.

Q: Why did you choose Santa Cruz as the backdrop to this story?

A: I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, and I was so struck its dramatic cliffs, beaches, redwood forests, and gorgeous trees. There’s an inherently laid-back feel about this city that I thought would make a nice juxtaposition to all of the tension happening in Iris’s life. There’s a pervasive feeling of people striving for social justice in Santa Cruz, which supports Iris’s metamorphosis from self-centered teen to animal-rights activist.

Q: Tell us about Angela Carter and your choice to include her in the story. 

A: I first learned about British writer Angela Carter when I was in graduate school at Cal State Los Angeles, working towards my MA in literature. I struck by the ways in which she completely re-interpolated familiar fairy tales, rejecting gender stereotypes and adding a feminist edge to these stories that had been controlled by men for hundreds of years. The Bloody Chamber was published in 1979 and was just so ahead of its time.

Q: Did you have kind, supportive teachers like Iris’s teacher Perry in high school? 

A: Yes! I was very lucky to attend a progressive high school in Santa Monica. We called our teachers by their first names, and we always sat in a circle instead of in prescribed rows. The teachers there were amazing listeners, whether they were hearing our ideas about a particular concept or listening to us vent about our daily lives. I felt particularly connected with my English, theater, and music teachers, and the character of Perry is an amalgam of all of these wonderful people.

jennifer caloyeras

Click here to learn more about Strays and to get your own copy. And visit Jennifer’s website for the latest news and events.