Category: On animals

Northwest VegFest 2012

By Midge Raymond,

For all of you Northwest folks out there, this weekend (September 22 and 23, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) is Northwest VegFest, held at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. We are unable to participate in person this year, but if you go, you’ll likely catch sight of our ReadVeg stickers:

…and we’ve donated a few of our veg-friendly books for raffles and giveaways.

We’re sorry to miss the festival, though — this list of vendors is impressive; from Coconut Bliss and Theo Chocolate to FARM and the U.S. Humane Society, it’s sure to be a weekend of deliciousness, education, and inspiration.

Click this link for event info and details — and don’t forget to check out the schedule of speakers, demonstrations, and family activities as well.

What Is Missing?

By John Yunker,

Maya Lin has developed what she says is her last memorial.

And it’s a sad one at that.

What is Missing?

The home page is a world map depicted in dots. Each dot represents an endangered or extinct species or endangered ecosystem.

Some of the dots lead to videos of such animals as the African Penguin (which could go extinct in the next 20 years) and others, including forest elephants and right whales.

It’s easy to lose track of time while exploring this site. But it is time well spent.


Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

By Midge Raymond,

A  Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Dragon Keeper, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

 A: I was on a business trip in London in December of 2006 when I read an article in the paper about a Komodo dragon reproducing via parthenogenesis at the Chester Zoo. Since it was so close to Christmas, the article made a lot of overt comparisons to the Virgin Mary, and the tone of the entire piece was very light. It was clearly intended as entertainment. I immediately ripped the article out of the paper and read it obsessively in my hotel room over the next few days. I knew there was a much bigger story there, but I had no idea it could be a novel. A few weeks later, I was watching The Daily Show back at home when they aired a clip from the Chester Zoo. The dragons had hatched, and one of the zookeepers told the cameraman that it was the best day of her life. Jon Stewart made some joke about how pathetic this woman was, and in that moment I knew I had to write this story. I was fascinated by this woman, by the revelation that animals had begun reproducing without mates, and by the idea of a love story between a zookeeper and a dragon.

I wrote the book during my last two years in the Hamline MFA program, and it became my thesis. Since I have a full-time job, I wrote mostly during my lunch breaks and before classes at night. After I graduated, I revised the book two more times in the two years that followed, while working on other projects as well.

Q: Have you ever worked at a zoo?

 A: No, I never have. My zookeeper abilities don’t extend much beyond feeding a cat. My work life has been largely spent in corporations, and that’s the employer that ultimately came to the page. The Zoo of America is, of course, completely fictional, and I began thinking of it as corporate America, as in: “How would corporate America behave if it owned a zoo?” The actual zoos I was lucky enough to visit while researching the book were conscientious, humane institutions that bear little resemblance to the Zoo of America.

Q: Are you trying to say that zoos are a bad institution?

A: I didn’t want the book to be strictly pro-zoo or anti-zoo, but I did want to raise questions that we don’t always think about when we visit zoos. As the planet’s current conquering species, what is our responsibility to the other creatures who live here? We’ve come a long way from the roadside menageries, but do we have the right to capture and display animals for entertainment or education? What if, like Komodos, the species is losing its natural habitat? There are a lot of issues to consider, and I hope I’ve been able to introduce some of those questions for readers.

Q: What sort of research did you do to write the book?

A: Although I would have loved to travel to Indonesia, my budget dictated that most research had to be conducted through reading. Because Westerners first encountered the Komodo dragon relatively recently, there aren’t a great deal of academic studies available. I read the ones I could find, including Walter Auffenberg’s definitive 1981 book based on his research while living on Komodo Island.

I also wanted to get a sense of zoo life, without getting too focused on the habits of any one particular zoo. I visited the Memphis Zoo in 2007 and was fortunate enough to interview the curator of reptiles as well as both keepers who looked after their two Komodo dragons. At one point I mentioned Auffenberg’s comment that early expeditioners thought the dragons were deaf because they didn’t react to gunshots. The curator had never heard that and seemed incredulous of the fact. Later he showed me why. When we were behind the Komodo exhibit, he opened the top half of the door that led inside and said, “Jeff!” Jeff, the eight-foot-long Komodo, immediately turned 180 degrees and barreled for the door. The curator and I had to retract our heads and slam the door shut before Jeff could rear up over it into the hallway. “He can hear,” the curator said, grinning.

Q: Is parthenogenesis really possible?

A: Yes, it is, and there are documented cases of parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. When I happened to find that article about Flora, the Komodo at the Chester Zoo who reproduced via parthenogenesis in 2006, I was immediately fascinated by the idea of sexual animals reproducing without mates. In the course of The Dragon Keeper, we learn that Jata’s offspring are even more unique than Flora’s. What happens with Jata specifically has never been known to occur in Komodos, but it seemed to me like the next logical evolutionary step, although I’m as much at a loss to explain it as Meg and everyone else in the book. To me, it’s still somewhat of a miracle.

Q: Are there really Komodo dragons like Jata?

A: Yes! It was very important to me to portray Komodo dragons as accurately as I possibly could. I researched the species extensively, and in several of the studies I found references to a Komodo dragon named Bubchen who lived in the Frankfurt Zoo in the early twentieth century. By all accounts, she was an extraordinary animal who became completely acclimated to living with humans. Many of Jata’s behaviors are based on what I could find out about Bubchen, and I couldn’t resist including a small tribute to her in the book as well.

Q: Would you describe The Dragon Keeper as a love story?

A: Certainly Meg is embroiled in a love triangle for much of the story, but ultimately I’ve always seen this as a love story between Meg and Jata. Sometimes the perception is that a human-animal bond is simpler than relationships between humans, but I’ve always thought it raises many compelling questions. Why does this person choose to give their affection to an animal instead of someone within their own species? And then you have to look at the animals’ side of the relationship. Are they even capable of returning affection? What are the circumstances of their lives that have brought them into close contact with humans instead of others of their own species? In Jata’s case, you also have to understand that she’s an alpha predator, and her instincts will always be at war with any attachment she is capable of developing on Meg.

The Emergence of Eco-Fiction

By John Yunker,

The eco-literature (eco-lit) label has been largely associated with nonfiction environmental works, such as Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez or Silent Spring by Rachel Carlson.

But what about fiction that addresses environmental and animal rights themes?

We began using the eco-fiction label a year ago. And we’ve collected our relevant titles here.

(Amazon does not yet offer an eco-fiction category for books. Not yet.)

Label or not, category or not, eco-fiction has been around for many years.

I count Moby-Dick as one of the great works of ec0-fiction. Though some say the novel glorifies whaling, I feel it did just the opposite. The whales were disappearing and, one in particular, was fighting back.

And The Jungle did more to link human rights to animal rights than any book written since.

So while eco-fiction itself isn’t new, I do see signs of more authors writing books that fall under this umbrella. And, just as important, I see more and more readers seeking out these types of books — whether it’s for animal rights issues, global warming, or the battle to save endangered species.

People are curious.

People are concerned.

People want to connect with others who share their concerns.

And people want to be inspired by those who have devoted their lives to all these sometimes futile causes.

Here are a few works centered around animal rights that have inspired me over the years.

Let’s start with children’s books. For children, there is a lot of literature out there, from Black Beauty to Mrs. Frisby and The Nats of NIMH. I remember as a child being struck by the violence that animals often endured (or were forced to escape from) in these books. Looking back, I wonder how I was able to reconcile reading books that took the points of view of animals with the fact that I was also eating animals. But I quickly learned, as did others, to reserve empathy for those animals we consider pets.

A Report to An Academy
Franz Kafka
Though this story is only a few thousand words long, it left a mark on me. It is a speech given by an ape that was once wild but is now “civilized.”

Here is an excerpt:

I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrances of my youth. In fact, to give up being stubborn was the supreme commandment I laid upon myself; free ape as I was, I submitted myself to that yoke. In revenge, however, my memory of the past has closed the door against me more and more. I could have returned at first, had human beings allowed it, through an archway as wide as the span of heaven over the earth, but as I spurred myself on in my forced career, the opening narrowed and shrank behind me; I felt more comfortable in the world of men and fitted it better; the strong wind that blew after me out of my past began to slacken; today it is only a gentle puff of air that plays around my heels; and the opening in the distance, through which it comes and through which I once came myself, has grown so small that, even if my strength and my willpower sufficed to get me back to it, I should have to scrape the very skin from my body to crawl through.

A Mother’s Tale
James Agee

A Mother’s Tale is a short story that deals head-on with animal slaughter. The story can be read in many ways; it is surely as much about humans as it is about animals.

Elizabeth Costello
J.M. Coetzee

I could have just as easily highlighted two other novels by Coetzee: Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year. Animal rights is a recurring theme in Coetzee’s work and several of his protagonists are vegetarians. Elizabeth Costello is a vegetarian (or vegan) and her speech in a chapter of the book called The Lives of Animals has become a popular work on its own. What’s I most like about this book is the dynamic between Elizabeth and her son’s family (who are not vegetarians). It’s a tense relationship to be sure and one I think many vegetarians can relate to.

As Coetzee writes in FoeWe must cultivate, all of us, a certain ignorance, a certain blindness, or society will not be tolerable.

It is clear to me that we as a society are just beginning to remove the blinders regarding the environment and the animals we share it with.

And while this post is focused on animal rights, there are so many other works out there about the oceans, the air, and the land. If you’ve written something along these lines, we are accepting submissions.

If you have any books to recommend, add them to the “best eco-fiction” list on GoodReads or contact me.

Bear 71

By John Yunker,

Take 20 minutes.

Find 20 minutes this evening or this weekend and visit this website.

Bear 71 is web-based interactive documentary about a bear that lived and died in Canada’s Banff National Park.

And it’s told from the bear’s point of view.

I’ve included a few screen grabs here, but you really need to dive in. You’ll see footage of bears and elk and ravens. And because Bear 71 was tracked by a radio tag, you’ll be able to follow this bear’s journey.

What makes this documentary so effective is not just its focus on one bear’s journey, but it’s effective use of first-person point of view. You get inside the bear’s head. You understand what she can smell and see and the challenges she faces in dealing with people and highways and railways.

Bear 71 was created by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes and co-created and produced by the National Film Board of Canada.