Category: On nature

The Resplendent Quetzal: 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!

The Resplendent Quetzal

There are six kinds of quetzals in the cloud forests of Central America, and while they are all attractive birds, just one species is known as “resplendent.” Imagine being such a stunning specimen that you are classified in terms of your matchless beauty.

Definitions of resplendent include: “shining brilliantly,” “richly colorful,” “dazzling in appearance.” So why aren’t peacocks deemed resplendent, or butterflies, or poison dart frogs? What makes the quetzal so special?

This bird sports sumptuous colors, to be sure. Scarlet body, golden beak, emerald head and back, streaks of azure running down the tail feathers. The male has a wondrously long tail that floats behind him as he flies through the rain forest canopy. His head is crested and his eyes are large and glistening.

To see this legendary bird in flight must be transformative. You might think you imagined the vision, and you might be right: The quetzal is endangered, as are many exquisite things on this planet, our admiration for them causing more harm than good.

In Guatemala, the quetzal is the national symbol; even the currency is called the quetzal. The word is taken from the Aztec word ‘quetzalli,’ meaning precious or beautiful. Mayans worshipped the creature and used its tail feathers in their headdresses. While killing a quetzal was punishable by death, one could trap it, pluck its feathers and let it go. Over time the feathers grow back, but meanwhile, how does the damaged male charm a female? How does it soar through the jungle with only the memory of its glorious tail? The Mayans can be credited with many things—humanity is not one of them.

Quetzals mate for life. Solitary and quiet most of the year, they come together only in the springtime. Their nests are confined to dead or dying trees, where they use a hole made by a previous tenant or peck out one themselves. For eighteen days the parents take turns sitting on the two blue eggs, and though both care for the chicks afterward, the female departs early. In just three weeks, the young can fly. They eat a range of food, from insects to small frogs to certain fruits, particularly miniature avocadoes, which they swallow whole, spitting out the seeds.

Deforestation is limiting the quetzals’ nesting options; this and poaching are the biggest reasons for the decline of the species. Poaching is illegal, but the laws are ignored or unenforced. The birds are captured for their feathers or for display in private museums.

As these birds do not mate in captivity—most die after being caught—protecting their forests is the only means of saving them, and there are two areas in Guatemala where efforts are underway. We have put ourselves in a terrifying position, having created a world in which wild things must depend on us for their survival.

The resplendent quetzal cautions us with its name. There is no replacement, nothing quite so wonderful. Saving this bird is our only hope.

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  Category: On animals, On nature
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Gone: A guest post by author 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!


Today I came across a photo of a thylacine, commonly known as a Tasmanian Tiger, owing to the stripes on its back and rump. Native to Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, and largest of the carnivorous marsupials, thylacines were considered a threat to farmers and were hunted to extinction. The last one, a lone female, died of neglect in the Hobart zoo in 1936. Unlike the Dodo, we have plenty of photographs and footage of Tasmanian Tigers, which makes their disappearance even more harrowing.

When a species slips into oblivion, I think there must be an earthly acknowledgment, a sort of hush or shudder that travels over the planet and outward into the universe. Each time I read of a creature we have lost, I am more frightened than sad. I do not want to be left alone on this planet, cannot imagine my life without the succor of animals. There is a terror in the loss of a species through human folly, a wrong for which there is no right. In allowing the attrition of wild things, we steal from ourselves. Confident that we can afford the consequences, we borrow funds we can’t pay back and ignore the growing list of damage.

How many more animals will we permit ourselves to squander and which do we imagine we can do without?

The thylacine was an impressive-looking creature. It resembled a large short-haired dog but was related to kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. Up to six feet in length, with a stiff two-foot tail, the animal could stand on its hind legs for brief periods. Tasmanian Tigers was not particularly fast or agile, but they were formidable hunters with no predators of their own. Nocturnal creatures, they traveled and hunted in groups and were believed to ambush their prey. The female birthed up to four pups at a time, which stayed in her pouch for three months. Thylacines had yellowish brown coats with dark stripes that faded somewhat with age.

Attempts have been made to clone a thylacine, but these experiments have not been successful, and scientists admit we’re a long way from resurrecting the dead. For now we must wait for another sort of miracle. There have been reports in recent years of thylacine sightings, one from a reputable game warden, and while these accounts are beguiling, so far there are no corroborating photos or video. Generous rewards have been posted and the search continues.

If given a second chance to behold a living thylacine, I hope we will save it from ourselves, that we will spare it our tests and our studies and our cages. I hope we will pause in admiration and quietly move on.


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.


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.

Consider the Sloth: 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!

Consider the Sloth

Do animals think? Countless experiments have been undertaken to answer this question and the consensus is: Yes, they do.

I guess I’ve always considered this answer fairly obvious. How would creatures survive if they couldn’t evaluate situations and make appropriate decisions? Lionesses form collective hunts. Crows drop their walnuts into the path of vehicles. Beavers adjust the logs in their dams to control water levels. Plovers fake a broken wing to lure predators away from their nests. God knows what chimps and parrots are capable of.

Just looking at my cat this morning I saw proof of thought. He was on the deck, waiting to come inside. Knowing I was in the kitchen and could not see him at the sliding glass door, he jumped up on the deck railing and into my view. He also has a robust dream life. Like most animals, he twitches in his sleep, and sometimes he wakes himself with a soft, surprised cry. I smile when I see his paws move. I wonder where he has traveled to and whether he’s having a good time.

When they are not trying to acquire food or protect their young or get attention, what do animals think about? When a lion has finished his dinner and is gazing out on the African plain, what is going on in his feline mind?

The sloth. Now there’s an animal with plenty of time to mull things over. Looking at a photo of a sloth—the big eyes, the gently smiling mouth—I am certain that something astonishing is going on in that short, flat head.

Sloths spend their lives hanging upside down from tree branches. In this pose, they eat, sleep, mate, bear young and die; even after death a sloth may hang from a branch for days, as if the divide between death and its sedentary life does not much matter. The world’s slowest mammal—an average clip is six feet a minute— sloths move only when necessary so as not to tax their minimal musculature. On the ground they are awkward and vulnerable, long polished claws serving as their only defense. For this reason, they stay in the trees, descending just once a week to urinate and defecate, digging a hole and covering it up afterward. While slowness might be considered a detriment to survival, this trait is actually an advantage for the sloth, whose lack of motion draws no attention. Another advantage of a slow pace is the chance it gives other life forms to take hold: algae blooms freely on sloths, serving as perfect jungle camouflage, as well as a handy food source.

Nocturnal creatures, sloths forage on their trees from dusk to dawn, methodically eating the fruit, leaves and bark. This roughage is then effortlessly digested, albeit slowly, with the help of multi-compartmentalized stomachs that comprise two-thirds of the animals’ body-weight.

Once a year the female lets out a few loud shrieks, which the male dutifully answers, and after great time and effort, they manage to arrive on the same branch. The mating itself occurs over a period of several minutes, and in what seems to be a tender fashion—sloths are the only mammals other than humans that mate face-to-face. The baby sloth appears six months later and spends much of its first year clinging its mother.

Research shows that sloths spend about ten hours a day sleeping. In the hours the animal is awake but inactive, it hangs from its limb and regards the jungle canopy, moving its flexible neck in increments, blinking now and then. Hidden among the leaves, making no sound or movement, these mute little beasts seem to want just one thing: to be undiscovered.

The two main emotions in life are love and fear, and certainly there is ample evidence that animals feel both. I imagine that when the shadow of a raptor passes overhead, a sloth cringes in fear. What about the lesser emotions, the ones that don’t serve us—like worry? Does a sloth, with all that time he has, worry about eagles and jaguars? Or does he have more productive thoughts, which part of the tree he’ll dine on that night? Or is he, is some deep animal way, simply enjoying himself, his mind a movie screen of pleasant images: leaves, sky, dappled light. When thoughts are not needed, maybe animals are not burdened with them.

It is estimated that people have 60,000 thoughts a day, a figure not as impressive as it sounds. These 60,000 thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday and the same ones we’ll have tomorrow. In our day to day lives, we are not much good at thinking out of the box. A sloth hangs in one tree all its life and, other than single visit from a single mate, has no company. With this scant stimulation, I wonder how many separate daily thoughts a sloth has. A hundred? Twenty? I would trade my 60,000 for a glimpse of them.


  Category: On animals, On nature
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A film every “environmentalist” should see

By Midge Raymond,

If you’re wondering why the word “environmentalist” is in quotes, then you should definitely see this film.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

— Martin Luther King, Jr.