Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Support We Need Diverse Books, and How Books Help Heal

You'd have to be living in a bubble (literally) to not know anyone who is diverse.

Diversity is a wide umbrella. Obviously, most people aren't white, straight, fully-abled, mentally healthy males. And yet, this is the flavor of person most of our media portrays. 

Books are a little bit better, in that especially with the rise of YA, many protagonists are now female. But racial, physical, sexual, and mental diversity are all still underrepresented.

Right now, there's an indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the non-profit organization We Need Diverse Books, which raises awareness about the lack of diverse characters in fiction and encourages publishers and readers to supply and purchase books by diverse authors and featuring diverse characters. 

This is a cause that should be important to us all, because everyone deserves to find someone like themselves in the pages of a book. As of this blog post, the campaign is less than $4,000 from its $100,000 goal. If you want to support the cause, please donate at the campaign here

Yesterday, I was talking to one of my friends at the ranch. Her wife is bipolar and recently had a severe manic episode involving a hospital stay and heavy medication. Her recall ability was severely affected by the episode and my friend has been working diligently to help rehabilitate her. We got to talking about books, and she told me that one of the ways her psychologist suggested helping her wife's recall was to read books. 

Well, the problem with that was that it's still very difficult for her wife to read. But she can listen to books on tape! And they have been. My friend says they'll listen to a book for a couple hours, then she'll wait a day or two and discuss what they listened to with her partner. Her wife's recall has improved dramatically just from this simple exercise that many people use for recreation anyway. 

This story really touched me. It's so easy to get caught up in the idea of Being Published. Yes, ultimately, most people who want to be published do so because they want their books to be out there and for other people to read them. But so rarely do we really stop and think about how our books will affect and possibly even change people's lives. What we put out in the world could have a profound effect on someone else. 

So think about it. What worlds could you be opening up to someone by including diverse characters in your books? Take the opportunity to do whatever you can to make the world in your books more like the world we live in. You never know who you'll touch with your books. 

(Note: please don't actually physically touch people with your books, unless you know them.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Seals vs. Sea Lions

I hear this one all the time. It's a perfectly understandable confusion; these two animals are very similar in a lot of ways. If you're not a marine scientist or even an aficionado, there's not a whole lot of reason or opportunity to learn what the differences are between a seal and a sea lion.

This post would be more accurately titled "True seals vs. Eared seals" (more on this later). The family of pinnipedia is divided into three main categories: walruses, the eared seals (sea lions and fur seals) and the true seals (like the harbor and elephant seals). Within the eared seals, there are several types of fur seal, which have a thicker undercoat than sea lions. But aside from typical nit-picky species differences, fur seals and sea lions look pretty much alike. Therefore, since it's the only good image I've taken recently, the photo I'm using to illustrate the eared seals is a northern fur seal.

There are lots of similarities between true seals and eared seals. They're both mammals. They both belong to the family of animals called pinnipeds (meaning "wing-foot"). They have five digits on each flipper. And they both have sensitive whiskers for the detecting, pursuing, and capturing of prey.

But once you actually see them side by side, the differences become a lot clearer. 

This is a an eared seal (and a human, if you want to be pedantic about it):

My photo, and you're about to see it a lot.

This is a true seal. A harbor seal, to be exact:

From Wikipedia
You'll notice several differences immediately, but the biggest one is their general body type. The eared seal is definitely more of an athlete, with a svelte, lean, muscular body. The harbor seal is, er, well, more of a fast food and binge-watching TV sort of animal. Rounder. More to love, and all that. 

Both animals are very differently equipped. The eared seal has a rotating pelvis-- it can pull its rear flippers under its body and "walk" on all fours. Please excuse my terrible MS Paint illustrations of this:


In Rotation


Here's that standing eared seal photo again, with the rear flippers highlighted:

With true seals, their locomotion is primarily reliant on the amount of blubber they contain. Basically, it goes like this:

A true seal's flippers are much smaller, partly to stay out of the way when they go bouncing along.

Both animals are graceful in the water (though eared seals can move a bit more quickly), but eared seals got the upper hand out of the water, too. 

You can also look at color. Eared seals are pretty much universally a dark brown. They may have some blondishness from sun bleaching, but for the most part, they're chocolate colored. True seals are usually seen in a wider range of colors (all neutrals, but more varied, for sure). The harbor seal is spotted, for example. 

But if you're on a boat and you look in the water and see both animals looking up at you, there's one fast and easy way you can tell them apart. 

Sea lions and fur seals have external ear flaps (little coverings for their ears), hence the family name "eared seal":

True seals don't:

My photo

So, that's the difference. Wasn't that fun?!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What's Been Going On With Me Lately, Part 2

Yesterday, I told you about all of this. Today, we continue.

My husband and I were planning to drop Infant off at Grandma's and go see the horse for a quick visit as a practice run for future babysitting. I'd had some heartburn late in my pregnancy, and I was starting to feel something coming on. I took some Mylanta right before we walked out the door. By the time I got into our car, I knew something was terribly wrong.

Later, my husband said the only other time he had ever seen me in so much pain was during labor. I don't much remember the ride to my mom's house, feeling like my stomach was going to burst open inside me, nor do I remember getting there and getting out of the car. I do remember my husband calling 911, and I got my second ambulance ride of the year.

The pain subsided a bit by the time the ambulance got to the ER, but the docs ran all the tests they could anyway, and told me I had gallstones. On top of that, my liver enzymes were elevated, which they wanted me to keep an eye on. They sent me home without much fanfare except a recommendation to see a surgeon about having my gallbladder taken out. I assumed life would continue on as normal, and prepared accordingly.

I rescheduled with my mom to try again the next evening. Just before we left the house, I started to get a migraine.

You might see where this is going. Sadly, you're right.

About an hour after we got there, I began vomiting every 5-10 minutes. I'm still not certain if it was from the headache, or the gallbladder, but back to the ER we went (by car this time). There, they gave me the most awful drugs for the migraine. They made my headache feel better, and they stopped the vomiting, but they made me so agitated that if I could have crawled out of my own skin I would have. If I hadn't been chained to an IV I likely would have gotten up and walked out.

However, when the doctor came back with my blood test results, the news was bad. He said my liver enzymes were even more elevated, and I didn't have a choice: they were admitting me to the hospital.

I spent three days away from my four-week-old son, strapped to IV antibiotics and fluids. The agitation didn't go away, likely because no new mother wants to be away from her baby. The first day, I didn't get to eat at all. The second day, they let me have a liquid diet. My going-home test on the third day was eating solid food. I passed, thank goodness, because I would have torn my hair out if I'd had to stay any longer.

My roommate was this poor woman who had already had her gallbladder out and came in with uncontrollable vomiting. They thought she had some stones still forming, and I promptly wished I hadn't heard that. I didn't want to know that I could go through the surgery and STILL have terrible pain.

My husband brought my baby to visit each evening, but the time between those visits was spent crying and trying to keep myself together (and obviously failing) in my hospital room. On top of that, my IV kept failing, and each time they redid it came with at least three botched attempts at placing a new one. This, on top of other issues, meant that by the end of that three days, I was completely done with the hospital.

This time when they let me go, it was with the caveat that surgery was no longer optional. I had an appointment with a surgeon a few days later, and surgery scheduled for a couple weeks out. All was going well, except I had to stick to a low fat diet.

Apparently, even that wasn't good enough, because five days before my surgery, I had another attack and went back to the ER. They gave me pain meds and told me that I had two choices: I could keep my scheduled surgery date and go home to wait, or I could be re-admitted to the hospital and take the next available surgery, which likely still would be a few days away. I opted to go home.

The day of my surgery arrived. I nervously said goodbye to my animals, baby, and husband, and went with my mom to the hospital. The nurses still had to try three times to get an IV in, but thankfully they managed. The anesthesiologist was a very literal man who told me, when I informed him I'd had some episodes of low blood pressure and thought I'd woken up the last time I'd been put under to have my tooth extracted, that those factors "increased the possibility of interoperative recall", and I quote. Charming, lovely man.

They had me walk into the OR and sit on the operating table after making it as physically uncomfortable as they possibly could. I had also told the anesthesiologist that I might panic when they tried to put me under, which probably explains why he didn't tell me when he was putting me under. Charming, lovely man. But he kept me alive, so I'm grateful.

The surgery went "well", according to the nurse who was there when I woke up. She said I'd been in my recovery room for two hours. All I remembered was her asking if I was in pain, me saying yes, her pumping more drugs into my IV, me still being in pain, repeat ad nauseum. Finally she gave me some oral drugs and took me out to see my husband.

I was still in incredible pain, but somehow we managed to get home. Everything should have been fine, except, well, it's me. Cue another ER trip the day after my surgery and an urgent care appointment a few days following. Sigh.

The short end of the story?

I'm mostly okay now. Definitely still healing. Still in pain, but I only spent a few days on the narcotic meds. I'm sad that my husband has basically raised my baby by himself for the last month, but so, so glad to have a partner in life who is willing to do so, without complaint.

I'm grateful to my family for their support.

I'm pissed at my body for its apparent rebellion, and frankly, as a recently-pregnant woman, I'm pissed at how little I can eat.

I'm scared I might come out of this with yet another painful, chronic condition.

I'm so happy to see my baby's face every day, even if I can't pick him up yet.

I'm excited to see what the future holds, and it's coming up on fall, my favorite season.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's Been Going On With Me Lately Part 1

I've been pretty quiet recently.

Aside from signing with my agent in June, there hasn't been a whole lot to share here this year.

Well, there has-- but it's pretty personal. Still, I figured it's time to explain what's going on in my personal life. I've been somewhat cryptic on twitter, though most of this isn't exactly a secret. I haven't been answering emails very quickly. I've been pretty MIA in general here and on twitter.

Last year was rough professionally and emotionally. This year has been rough physically.

I have essentially been sitting on my couch since March.

My pregnancy was fairly easy from a baby standpoint. Infant was happy, content, and not too hard on me. But I, already a fairly disaster prone person, became a walking target for physical misfortune during the last half of my pregnancy. In early March, I fell in an erosion ditch and sprained my ankle. Baby was fine, but oh hey-- turns out they can't give pregnant women painkillers or anti-inflammatories! Basically all I had to control said sprained ankle was advice to stay off it (yeah right, my job is standing all day), ice it, and maybe try physical therapy.

After a couple weeks of trying to push through it, I was placed on light duty at work which basically involved sitting down. Normally this would have been fine, but I didn't realize how long it would take for my ankle to heal. In case you're wondering, it took eight weeks. Eight. Weeks.

Obviously I was a little too excited when I got released from light duty and put back to work, because the universe decided it needed to take me down another notch. Literally the day after I was released by the doctor, I had a freak accident with my horse. She jumped into me and sent me flying, landing on my side. Thankfully I had the sense to tuck and protect my belly, but I still left the ranch by ambulance and spent the night in the hospital to make sure the baby was okay (extra double thankfully, he was). But I didn't get off scot-free. I had some incredible (painful) bruising on my right hip, sore ribs, and a pretty banged up knee. Not to mention the terror of the potential harm to Infant.

I didn't mention this earlier because I still feel incredibly guilty about what happened. It wasn't Pony's fault, it wasn't mine. Neither of us could have seen it coming, and it's a fact of life working with animals, especially large ones, that things can happen. It was just completely terrible timing for an incident to occur. I couldn't just abandon my horse, and all efforts to find someone to help me with her care had failed, including hiring someone. The only positive to come out of the accident, aside from Infant and I being okay, was that people actually took me seriously afterward when I said I needed help with her. I finally found a couple people willing to assist me.

I very, very slowly healed from my bruises and was mostly okay by the time Infant arrived (though still pretty immobile due to being extremely pregnant!) There then followed the period every new parent goes through of doing nothing but trying to figure out how to take care of a baby. Things were just starting to look up about a month after he was born, and then IT happened.

Tomorrow: Part 2

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Zoo Rant Week Follow-up: Let's talk about poaching

Find my Zoo Rant Week series here (this post links to the previous four).

This is Nola:

My photo
She is a northern white rhinoceros. And she is one of seven--yes, that's correct. SEVEN-- left of her entire species.

(Nola looks "sad" in this photo, which helps with the whole message I'm about to get across, but I need to add a reminder to not anthropomorphize animals-- their social cues are hugely different from our own and you can't read emotions from a photo of an animal that can't move its face).

Nola is an old girl. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where she's housed, actually has two northern white rhinos-- there's also a male. Both rhinos are over forty years old. They were kept together with the intention of breeding them, but the reality is that the northern white rhino will go extinct during our lifetime unless we find a quite-literal miracle to save them. Nola is too old to have calves, and the pair lost interest in each other some time ago. The remaining five are under 24-hour armed guard in Africa, but are also too old, too young, or too closely related.

There are currently five species of rhinos left in the world: northern white rhinos, southern white rhinos, black rhinos, Sumatran and Javan.

Last year, over a thousand rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa alone. In some cultures, rhino horn is seen as a medicine, or a health supplement, or a rare ceremonial decoration. But a rhino's horn is made of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair. It grows back, just like our nails and hair do. You can see evidence of this on Nola in that photo: the Park regularly has to trim her horns because she doesn't groom them much herself (horn grooming is entirely up to the rhino. Some wear theirs all the way down, some don't bother at all). There's nothing magical or medicinal about rhino horn. It would be the same as trying to cure a cold by eating your hair.

But rhino horn is a lucrative business for shady people. And the message that it's a medicine is so ingrained in the cultures that believe it that it would be like telling Americans that Vitamin C doesn't help prevent colds. (Spoiler: it doesn't. But I bet you know someone who thinks so). We can get into the placebo effect later; the important thing is that rhino horn contains nothing special.

In the regions where rhinos are found, there is a war going on every single day between poachers and those who wish to protect the rhinos. Every time the anti-poaching strategists come up with something new, like poisoning the horns (harmless to the rhinos, and marked with a bright pink dye) or removing the horns regularly (since they grow back), the poachers either find a way around it or kill the rhinos anyway out of spite.

And the situation doesn't stop with rhinos. Also popular animals to poach: tigers, cheetahs, leopards (most big cats, really). Gorillas. Sea Turtles. Elephants. Well, here. See a bigger list for yourself.

All of these animals are in danger due to poaching. The three at biggest threat currently are rhinos, elephants, and tigers. As mentioned during my zoo rant week, there are more tigers in backyards in the US than there are left in the wild. Without zoos making serious efforts to breed them responsibly (i.e., with an eye for ample genetic diversity and health), we could also expect tigers to go extinct during our lifetime. This may happen even despite our efforts.

Long story short: if you're looking for someone to hate when it comes to wild animals, hate poachers. Be verbal about the fact that these things aren't medicine, or pretty-- they're far prettier on the animals they come from. Pass legislation against poaching (yes, it even happens here in America). And above all, when you travel, don't buy animal parts as trinkets. No matter how small, or where the person selling them says they came from. Ever.

But don't hate zoos. We're really not the bad guys. We're doing the best we can in an uphill battle against climate change, poaching, and public opinion.

As usual, thanks for reading.

PS-- The New York Times just today published an excellent article about the widespread effects climate change can and will and is already having on the planet, the plants, and the animals. There's a lot in here that directly affects you and I. I suggest taking a look!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: What the future holds for zoos, and a few closing thoughts

Read part one here.
Read part two here.
Read part three here.
Read part four here.

We've been on a journey this week. If you're reading this far, thanks for putting up with my rant.

I want to make it very clear that I don't have all the answers. I am constantly learning, and I'm the type of person who will always, always take in new information, consider it, and add it to my opinions on things. That said, I don't really see a near future where we won't need zoos for the reasons I've described. When it comes down to it, zoos may be the only places we can get to see some animals in the future. They already are, for a select unfortunate few species.

If we continue down our current path, zoos may be the only place we see wildlife in the future.

That's not a world I want to live in, or leave to my children. But the frustration is that we live in a very polarized political climate. It boggles my mind that people don't want to accept that climate change is real. On the one hand, I get it-- yes, it's scary. Sometimes it's easier to live in denial than accept a truth that doesn't sound changeable. But on the other hand, even if you don't believe in climate change, why would you not want to do anything in your power to make this planet a better place to live?

Likewise, I simply don't understand people who think all zoos are bad. There are certainly terrible zoos out there, don't get me wrong. But as I mentioned at the start of the week, there are a few easy ways you can find good zoos to support. And a 1.5 hour "documentary"* is not a good place to go looking for zoos to avoid.

So what is the future of zoos? Well, assuming this slippery path of legislature against certain animals in zoos doesn't hold up, I think the future of zoos is bright. I know this, because the people who work in zoos are driven by passion, compassion, and a drive to change the world. We work with these animals not just because of some pipe dream leftover from when we were children (though that certainly sparked many of us to head in this direction), but because it's hard not to care once you learn what's really facing these animals.

I go to work every day and I have the chance to save species and change lives and maybe even better the world. That's a pretty heavy responsibility, for someone who spends most of their day picking up some form of poo. One of my extracurricular goals each day at work is to look at my animals, my exhibits, and myself, and ask what I can be doing better. What can I do more of, what can I add to my routine, what can I suggest to my bosses? And then I implement it, and I do this every single day.

Zoos will never be static. We will always be striving to do more, because we know and recognize that the system isn't perfect (no system is!), and we've come such a long way in the last forty years alone that we can only dream of what's ahead. But if we're not given the chance to improve, to keep working toward a better and brighter zoo, the only thing that can replace us is worldwide change.

Which is why it makes even less sense to me that SeaWorld has recognized that people want to see change, come up with and implemented a plan, and it's making people angrier at them.

So that's it. Those are my thoughts. Like I said, they may not be the right answers, but this is what I've been wanting to say for a long time. This is the most political I'll ever get on my blog. I hope someone out there got something positive from this and thanks, again, no matter how you feel, for reading.

*I use the word documentary regarding BLACKFISH loosely, because on its original release, the film's own website referred to it as a psychological thriller.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why ocean animals are tricky to talk about

Read part one here.
Read part two here.
Read part three here.

This whole rant is thanks to BLACKFISH, and most of my examples so far have been land animals. So it's time to talk about the ocean, the animals that live there, and why there's no easy answer to any argument about them.

It boils down to this, and it's pretty common sense:

The ocean is huge.

There are tens of millions of species that live in the ocean.

We haven't even scraped a corner of a piece of a smidge off the everything there is to know about the ocean.

The Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean, was visited once in 1960 by a manned submersible, and only three other times by robotic subs. We've been to the moon more times than the deepest part of our own planet.

But, somehow, we're still making it a miserable place for animals to live.

Did you know there's a giant floating island of garbage in the middle of the Pacific?

Did you know there are international sanctions and agreements against whaling, but several countries openly ignore those sanctions and do it anyway? For whatever reason, it's not considered poaching, because it's the ocean.

Did you know that if we don't find a way to reverse or even just stop climate change, we can expect rising sea levels and changes in the makeup of our oceans that could cause mass extinctions of many different species, not only in the water, but on land?

SeaWorld San Diego is one of only two facilities in the world that's successfully bred emperor penguins outside of Antarctica. These birds require extremely specialized care and conditions to successfully breed, and their habitat is threatened every day by the loss of Antarctic sea ice, rising sea levels, and warmer summer extremes in the Antarctic.

Having said all that, the biggest challenge that faces us in the debate about zoos keeping whales and dolphins is that we simply don't know everything about sea animals. It's impossible to study them thoroughly in the wild. All the speculation about the lifespans of whales is just that: speculation. We haven't been recording the same animals for long enough to know for sure how long they live. But they certainly face more challenges in the wild than they do in a zoo, and their average lifespans are certainly not the oft-spouted high numbers. My great-grandmother lived to be 106, but that doesn't mean I will. Nor will most people.

Sea animals present us with a number of challenges because we simply can't say anything for certain about their lifestyles and habits. We can guess, but we can't know. At least not yet.

In the meantime, we do everything we can to keep our animals healthy, mentally and physically.

Tomorrow: What the future holds for zoos