Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Moral Question: How do you deal with negative comments about zoos?

Since the release of the Movie That Shall Not Be Named (MTSNBN), things have... changed, at zoos. In fact, things are almost volatile. It's more common for people to balk when they find out what I do for a living now than to think it's cool or ask me questions.

And frankly, it's heartbreaking. 

As a writer, I've tried so hard on this blog to counteract the damage that MTSNBN has done, but it seems people are choosing the popular path when it comes to how they feel about zoos. They've been emotionally manipulated into believing it's wrong instead of doing their own research or taking action against the real enemies, i.e., poaching, wildlife trafficking, sensationalist "animal welfare" organizations, and climate change. 

It's exhausting. Some days, it makes me question my sanity. It makes me question my career decisions. It makes me wonder if I'm a horrible person. 

Let me make something quite clear: I don't know a single zoo employee who doesn't love the animals in their care as if they were their children. We take better care of our animals than most people take care of their pets. We devote our lives to them. We stay awake for days at a time when they're sick. We're constantly looking for new and creative ways to enrich them. We're always trying not to think too hard about the battles their wild cousins face, because it breaks our hearts. 

And talking to someone who has already made up their mind about how evil zoos are and is looking for a reason to be proven right feels like yelling at a wall. 

Perhaps it's time to stop calling them zoos. Perhaps it's time to shift away from that word, like we shifted away from menagerie, and start calling them what they really are. Except "Environmental Conservation and Wildlife Science Facility" doesn't roll off the tongue quite the same. 

I've been pretty lucky so far that I haven't had any major encounters with anti-zoo visitors at my job. For the most part, unless they're undercover for An Organization That Shall Not Be Named Either, people who don't like zoos don't tend to go to them. But I have had some bad luck in my personal life. 

There's a person I know very well who's vocally anti-zoo, pro-MTSNBN. And it frustrates me to no end. Because she should know better. She should know that I'm not a cruel person. But I think I finally changed her mind. Or at least opened the door for her to do it. 

I told her, a few weeks ago, about what's going on in Africa. How dozens of species will be extinct in the next 20 years thanks to poaching and wildlife trafficking. How zoos may be the only place people will get to see those animals. How without zoos keeping those animals now, we wouldn't understand their social and breeding behavior and be working towards saving them. 

How ultimately, we work to release animals back into the wild. 

I told her about tigers, and how there's more tigers in backyards in the US than left in the wild. 

I told her about the California condor, and how there were only 22 left in the wild thirty years ago, and now there's more than 400, and that's ONLY thanks to zoos. 

As for marine animals? Well. The thing that's particularly frustrating to me about that whole thing is that SeaWorld is the only reason most people know what a killer whale is. Until the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, it was legal for the US Navy to use them for target practice. They were seen as scary, dispensable monsters. Now millions of people love them, all because of what SeaWorld has done. And no, their early practices weren't sound, but we knew so little about animals back then (yes, even fifty years ago), and their animal care now is top notch. 

Ocean animals are so hard to pinpoint in population, but rest assured with climate change and rising ocean temperatures, they're all not long from being endangered, too. 

And finally, I told her how what I want from her is to be getting mad at the people who ARE actually doing the harm. Get mad at the poachers. Get mad at the traffickers. Get mad at the roadside "zoos" who breed exotic animals for tourists to pose with and then send them off to be killed in canned hunting expeditions. 

Don't get mad at the (usual disclaimer: responsible, accredited) zoos. Honestly. We're the good guys. Trust me when I say, we care more about the animals in our care than ANYONE else. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Why you should still care about Cecil the Lion (and all lions, and all animals, and...)

My facebook feed the past couple of weeks was, predictably, at first filled with reasons why people were upset at Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed the famous Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. There were witch hunts, news stories, people slamming his dental practice so hard that he closed it (though who knows for how long?), and the inevitable death threats.

And then the wind shifted, and this past week I've been seeing all these articles posted instead about why nobody should care, and the dentist didn't do anything wrong, and to the people of Zimbabwe, it was just another lion, and so on and so forth and. Well. 

I obviously have very strong feelings on the subject of animal conservation. Africa in particular is a hot spot of controversy, because we send thousands of white tourists there each year, and then some trophy hunter comes along and ruins everything for everyone. 

(For the record, I am pro-hunting for sustenance, and legitimate population control. I am NOT pro-trophy or "sport" hunting, and I am definitely NOT okay with poaching, which is what Cecil's death amounts to). 

The number one point I keep seeing people throw around is that lions aren't even endangered. While this is technically true, what a lot of folks who just hit "share" don't realize is that they're currently being assessed to be listed as threatened. The last assessment of lions was in the 90's. 

In Africa, you won't find many wild lions outside of national parks and preserves. The rest of the land has been taken over by humans, in one form or another. Just like we don't see many bears outside of national parks and preserves here in the US anymore, unless you happen to live in Alaska. 

Over the 75 years, lion populations have declined 90% from their historic range and numbers. This is huge, because what happens when you lose the apex predators in a region? Prey populations explode. And what happens when prey populations explode? The land dies. 

Now, enter the argument that the hunt for Cecil was a much-needed profit for Zimbabwe. Well, here's the problem with that. Cecil in particular was well-known in Zimbabwe and sought out by thousands of tourists each year who paid for safaris into the Hwange National Park, where Cecil lived. He was also part of a research study at Oxford. 

Walter Palmer paid about $50,000 for the privilege of killing Cecil. USA Today reports that Zimbabwe's final quarter of 2015 was projected to bring in about $5 million in tourism revenue. Even if only a fraction of that was due to Cecil, over the lifetime of the lion, he was worth far more in tourism revenue alive than the $50k paid to kill him. 

And all the other animals that big-game, sport/ trophy hunters go after are the same. 

I'm also seeing the argument that these hunts "support conservation". This is a messy can to open, philosophically, but I'm going to open it anyway. The theory goes that by these hunters paying the big money to go hunt animals in Africa, only a few animals are killed, but the money that goes to conservation efforts as a result helps those that are still alive. 

Except the guides Walter Palmer hired didn't work for any conservation organization that I'm aware of, and no reputable conservation organization that I know of sponsors these hunts. It's flimsy at best to say that it's helping conservation by bringing in revenue to Zimbabwe which can then turn around use those funds for conservation, because the chances of the money actually making it there is slim to none. 

Now, in the past I have heard of people auctioning off large game hunting permits and giving some of the proceeds to a conservation organization, but I'd be really curious to know who actually got the money and what it was used for. Until or unless trophy hunters actually follow through, with transparency and documentation of where the money is going, in my (admittedly personal) opinion, it's just an excuse to get what they want. 

Finally, there's been a lot of stories of people on the ground in Zimbabwe saying that Cecil was "just another lion" and they are glad he was killed because they feel the need to protect themselves, their livestock, and families, from lions. 

Well, yes. Any time you live in a part of the world where there's an apex predator, you are going to have to take precautions to make sure you don't become their lunch. It's very similar to the wolf issue in the US. 

I don't have much more of a response, except that I sort of doubt this response from Zimbabweans, considering the ones I've met have a lot of national pride in their beautiful country and its animals. 

Things can change so fast. To use another example, in the last eight years, we've gone from losing 13 rhinos to poachers, to this year being on track to lose over 1500. If things continue at the current rate, rhinos will be extinct in the wild by 2030

So yes, you should still be mad about Cecil's death. Instead of finding reasons not to care, or sending death threats to the man who killed him, use your anger to make positive change. 

You can support the following organizations if you want to do something good with your anger: 

Post incoming eventually about the canned hunting industry, which is a whole other mess. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Shark Week: I'm not mad, Discovery Channel. I'm disappointed.

Well, okay, I'm kind of mad.

It's time for me to finally admit that I can no longer stand behind Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

It hurts to say this. I used to look forward to-- and publicly announce my excitement for-- Shark Week every year. But it's no longer what I once loved about it.

Shark Week used to be a summer celebration of the awesome power and majesty of the shark. In earlier years, it was devoted to a mission I could get behind: reducing people's fear of sharks through education.

For the past few years, though... well, let's just say their mission has changed. Every single episode of Shark Week I've caught has been sensationalist, antagonizing, and, in some cases, completely fake. I haven't learned anything in years. I used to love Shark Week because they often showcased awesome new research being done with sharks and shared what we'd learned. But now, well. There's blood and danger music in every episode.

I love sharks. I have a healthy respect for them, I think they're amazing creatures and give them credit for my falling in love with the ocean. But they're easy villains, and sadly this has led to a lot of misinformation.

Take, for example, the shark attacks currently happening off the coast of North Carolina. We're up to 8 so far, as of this post, in the last 5 weeks. This actually isn't terribly unusual-- summer is in full swing, the beaches are full of people, which means the water is, too. What's different this year is the weather. A severe drought has made the ocean salinity super high close to shore, bringing in tons of schooling fish, which brings in the marine mammals, which brings in the sharks. And humans in wet suits, on boogie boards and surf boards and even just standing around are usually pretty indistinguishable from a sea lion. At least to a shark.

It's awful that so many injuries have occurred, but there is a logical reason for it. It's not like the sharks are out there maliciously plotting to chew on people, it's just a case of mistaken identity. But all I can think every time there's a new attack is how next year there will be a Discovery Channel fakeumentary on it during Shark Week, (yes, that's the same link for the second time: I really, really want you to read that article) probably titled something like "The Deadly Summer of the Shark" or "Bloody Carolina Summer" or "Megalodon Returns: Revenge of the 50-foot-Shark". I also have a feeling they'll mention it as often as they can.

Discovery Channel has an opportunity that borders on obligation each summer. They could easily help mitigate the fear that's coming out of these attacks by using their airtime to educate people about these animals and help them understand how to reduce their risks (i.e., stay out of the water when there has been a high incidence of attacks). Instead, people are calling for "dangerous" sharks to be killed, because resources like Shark Week have taught them that sharks are vicious and scary and it must be intentional and maybe even the same shark doing all of this. (Spoiler: killing "dangerous" sharks would mean killing them all).

Mostly, I'm bothered that Discovery spent so many years building their reputation as a reliable resource and then slowly shifted focus away from what they set out to do. People still believe what they see there because Discovery used to be right. Every year, I wait for the old Shark Week to come back. And every year, I'm disappointed.

So, Discovery, if you're listening, this is a plea from someone who loves sharks and the ocean and wants people to love them, too: please, please, please take back Shark Week. Forget about ratings and bring back what made Shark Week great: genuine, interesting content about sharks. Until you do, my endorsement, for whatever it's worth, has been pulled.

I hope you'll reconsider watching, too.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I feel like there have been a disproportionate amount of "real talk" blog posts on here the past year and a half, but, well, it's been a big, scary year and a half.

So here's another one.

I'm emotionally exhausted. Bone deep, dark side of the moon, trudging through my day exhausted. There's a lot going on you don't know about, and there's this Atlas-like weight I'm trying my best to foist off on any and everything else that I can, without much success.

The internet isn't helping.

Social media is both a blessing and a curse for many reasons. I love all the people I've met online who are now very real, and very dear, friends. Social media is where I get most of my news these days, where I connect with writers whose work I love, where I find new books to read. I learn a lot about myself and others there. But the same things that make it so great have also been leaving me with a sour taste in my mouth lately.

Every day, when I go online, I'm bombarded with hundreds of voices. We all yell into our own versions of the void, all clamoring to be relevant, to be heard. Except the more and more I look, the more and more I notice that the people who are being heard are doing so at some cost to others. Usually a criticism, sometimes snark, other times outright insults. They're choosing the negative because it gets them likes and favorites and retweets and reblogs and shares, which means they don't just show up in my feed once but often many, many times over the course of a few days.

Everywhere I look is more of what everyone is doing wrong, saying wrong, being wrong. And it's exhausting. I'm afraid to voice my opinion anymore, because I don't think I can handle any inevitable snarky confrontations without shutting down.

I cling like a baby animal to the positive influences in my feed. The folks who don't trudge into every pitchfork-grabbing opportunity guns (torches?) blazing, the ones who tweet about their day, or talk about their families, or post pictures of their cats. I like pictures of cats.

What I don't like, what I'm so unbelievably tired of, is the empty negativity. There is a lot of pain in this world, but that doesn't mean we have to use every chance we get to belittle others. There are a lot of things that need to change, but we can change them more effectively by teaching and leading than punishing. There are real people at the other ends of the words you say online. We all have a responsibility to one another, to be human, to respect one another, to remember that no one's opinion is absolute or more important than anyone else's. There are a lot of battles worth fighting, but pick them smartly. I wish I could tell you how. I'm still trying to figure it out myself.

What I do want to see, above all else (even pictures of cats), is people shining the light on those who deserve it, instead of chasing after those who may or may not have done something worthy of a witch hunt. Instead of laying into Author X for doing A, B, and C wrong, compliment and share that Author Y did them right. Instead of jumping on a bandwagon to harass someone, go write an email or a review to a writer whose book you liked. Instead of giving a mass murderer the infamy they crave, remember those their violence took from the world.

Of course, this only works if everyone agrees to it, and makes the effort to follow through. And it's unreasonable to expect everyone to focus on the positive all the time, and I know that. I'm not even asking for that. I just want to tip the balance the other way, because this pervasive, dominant negativity is rotting us all from the inside out.

I don't really have a conclusion except to say this blog post has been a really long explanation of why, for the sake of my currently-fragile emotional health, I'm taking the month of July off of Twitter at least, and perhaps everywhere else online too, and maybe for longer than that.

I'll still be around here and there to check in, maybe still occasionally post pictures of MY cats to pay it forward, but I won't be reading my feed much. If you talk to me directly, I'll still reply. When I come back, I hope to see more positivity, and lead by example myself, something I wish I had the emotional fortitude to do now. But, at least for July, I need a break.

Hopefully see you in August. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Zookeeper's Guide to Rebuilding Jurassic World


The disaster at Jurassic World this weekend left much of the zoological community in shock. The park will be closed for some time, according to initial reports of the damages and casualties, but in the likely event there is still demand for a new facility, I've compiled a small list of things the planners can hopefully do to increase survival rates.

Avoid bringing relatives to work

Family causes stress, which causes distraction, which causes inattention to detail, which leads to accidents.

Check GPS tags to verify animal locations BEFORE entering dangerous enclosures 

Thermal cameras and other technology can easily malfunction. Create escalation protocol and be prepared to follow through before sending staff into animal areas.

Don't keep corporate secrets that are vital to husbandry and enclosure maintenance 

A genetically-engineered animal may take on unexpected traits, but a thorough understanding of its genetic makeup will help prepare for most scenarios.

Ensure there is enough shelter for guests in the event of a catastrophic failure 

Know your facility's maximum attendance and be prepared to provide cover for that number of people. Guests should be aware of what constitutes shelter, and seek the first available location that removes them from danger.

Have failsafes for your failsafes 

What would you do if the electro-shock implants were removed from your animals? There should always be a backup plan, and in the case of genetically-engineered mega-predators, the backup plan should be nuclear.

Make sure all staff are properly trained on security protocol and know to double-check all latches and locks

A door or gate doesn't do much good if someone leaves it open.

Use positive reinforcement animal training programs to promote trust and foster positive relationships with staff

You never know when the bond you've forged with your animals will come in handy. It might even save lives.

Never feed collection animals live prey

Feeding live prey encourages hunting instincts to surface and gives animals a target to practice on. Especially when working with long-extinct reptilians, this can make their behavior unpredictable and increase the likelihood that their next target will be human.

Hiring former Marines and other ex-military personnel will give you a staff with built-in gumption and know how in a disaster 

It doesn't hurt if they're charismatic and good looking, either.

Make sure all potentially sleazy personnel have taken Monologuing 101

Any staff members who might actually be working against the restoration of order in a disaster should be dispatched immediately. They can be targeted by their use of monologues, which attracts predators.

And finally:

Never forget the other resources at your disposal

It might sound like fighting fire with fire, but sometimes the best solution for a predator problem is more predators.

I know the likelihood of anyone at Masarani or InGen seeing this advice is slim. But if they do, and it saves even one life, my work here is done.

Go here to support the disaster relief efforts for the Jurassic World survivors.

Jurassic World; or: OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG


Yesterday, Husband and I left Infant with his grandparents and took off to see a movie in the theater for the first time since Guardians of the Galaxy last year. Fitting, since both movies had the same star. You'd think we were huge Chris Pratt fans, which we totally are, but that part was actually just pure coincidence. 

I'm certain I was That Guy(Girl) in the theater to the people around us. I spent the whole two hours gasping and laughing and fist-pumping and clapping. I know I married the right man because he was right there with me the whole time. 

You guys. I literally cannot remember the last time I was that into a movie. (Pirates of the Caribbean, maybe)? Suffice to say, it's been a WHILE. 

Jurassic World did not disappoint. I was so, so scared it would. 4th movies have a history of suffering, badly, and I was inwardly terrified I would walk out of the theater yesterday with a sick feeling in my gut from disappointment. 

Nope. I was grinning, like an idiot, for at least an hour. I haven't done that for a movie in a long time, either. 

All the shout-outs to zoo culture in general and at least one to my zoo in particular were hilarious, endearing, and surprising. 

Chris Pratt trains his velociraptors pretty much exactly the same way I train my horse, cues and all. Amazing. 

The nods to the previous Jurassic Park films were numerous and nostalgia-inducing. The opening for potential future films was subtle but clear. 

And the monsters. 

My beloved velociraptors: everything I wanted and more. A cameo from our good friend the T-Rex from the first movie. The mosasaur was pretty good, too, and quite the awesome nod to my marine park days. The pteranodons might've been the scariest ones in the movie, though. And the new dino, the Indominus Rex? Chilling. 

It was tense. It was funny. It was beautiful. I cried, several times. 

It had a few faults. But I loved it so much I'm overlooking them. 

It's pretty much a guarantee that we'll see it again, and it's also pretty much a guarantee that I will subsequently purchase any and all Jurassic World merchandise as it becomes available. I'm hooked, guys. I have a new favorite movie. Take my tiny contribution to your millions of dollars opening weekend and bleed me dry. 

I am yours, Jurassic World. 

Everything is Jurassic World, and Jurassic World is everything. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Countdown to Jurassic World: JURASSIC WORLD!!!!

It's here! It's here! It's here!

I'm not! I'm not! I'm not!

No, really... I'm already feeling tense and ragey about the possibility of spoilers, so I'm leaving the internet til Saturday, when I have the chance to see the movie.

See, the thing is... Well. You remember the Indiana Jones movie that Doesn't Exist?

(I liked it, when I saw it in theaters).

(I liked it, until I started hearing other people talk about how much they didn't like it).

(I still haven't seen Age of Ultron because people keep saying they thought it was meh, and with Infant in the picture it's REALLY hard to see movies).

It turns out I'm a fairly impressionable person. I want to form my own opinion on Jurassic World, without any influence going in. I've been waiting for this movie for almost fifteen years. I'm prepared for it to suffer, but I really, really hope it's awesome.

And if it's awesome to me, but not everyone else, that's okay. I'll still like it.

If it's not awesome to me, that's okay, too. I just don't want anyone else's voice in my head when I see it.

So that, crazy kids, is why I'm sitting here with my hands over my ears going "LA LA LA LA LA LA NOT LISTENING LA LA LA LA LA LA LA" until Saturday.

(I hope it's awesome. I hope, I hope, I hope).

Friday, June 5, 2015

Countdown to Jurassic World: Jurassic Park III

I'll be honest, I barely remember this movie. I vaguely remember something about someone stealing velociraptor eggs, and a kid in an old ... plane? truck? train? thing. Pterodactyls. That awful Motorola ringtone. A dino I thought was an allosaurus for most of the movie.

I do remember that it didn't quite have the magic of the first two. I tend to forget it exists. JP 1 and 2 have both been huge influences on my life, but JP 3 was, well, forgettable. 

So this weekend should be interesting, because it will be almost like I'm seeing it for the first time!! I get to be wildly meh about it all over again!

The plan right now is to live-tweet JP 3 on Saturday, 6/6. I just don't know what time, as I'm on call for a late shift at work. If I get called in, it will be a weird time, like mid-day. If I don't, it will be another weird time, like mid-afternoon, because I need to write in the evening. 

All I want for Christmas in June is for Jurassic World to be unforgettable. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Countdown to Jurassic World: The Lost ... er, ... World

Last week, I shared why Jurassic Park is so special to me. This week, I'll be live-tweeting the second movie, The Lost World.

I remember going to see The Lost World in the theater, too, though not nearly as vividly as Jurassic Park. What do I remember?

Well, there are a few things, but the first that always comes to mind is the gymnast vs. velociraptor battle scene.

I remember this specifically because I thought it was ridiculous. You know, in a movie about dinosaurs living free on an uninhabited Costa Rican island and then getting shipped to the mainland and running loose in San Diego, THAT part stretched my suspension of disbelief.

The Lost World seems to catch a lot of flak, suffering either from Sequel Syndrome or Assumed Sequel Syndrome, I'm not really sure which. I can't be an impartial judge because I still think The Lost World was AWESOME, and a fantastic follow-up to Jurassic Park. It genuinely excited me because I thought it meant the franchise was viable, that it was bigger than the second-movie slump, and that we could expect Great Things from then on.

And then, well...

That's next week's topic.

I also love The Lost World now as an adult because a lot of what happens in this movie is super relevant to the work I do with wild animals. Like Jurassic Park, it has plenty of casual social commentary. And then, of course, there's the thrill of watching your (then) city get destroyed by a T-Rex on the big screen.

I'll be live-tweeting The Lost World tomorrow, 5/30 at 6:30 PM PST, still using the hashtag #JPLT. Join in, if only because it's really hard to snark alone.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Countdown to Jurassic World: Jurassic Park

Ah, nostalgia.

I get a healthy dose of it every single time I think about the movies of my childhood. In my memory, my childhood events are tied to the movies (and books, but this post is about movies) that came out around that time. Movies are some of the strongest memories I have:

Ariel swimming on-screen in The Little Mermaid, the first movie I ever saw in the theater.

Seeing Titanic in the theater six times in 8th grade. Both because it was the thing to do (us 8th graders put our spent ticket stubs in the clear fronts of our school binders to show how many times we'd been), and because I was into the Titanic disaster before it was cool, so I had to prove myself.

Waiting in line to see the first Lord of the Rings movie, and the first Harry Potter movie. My mom pulled me out of school for both so we could see them the day they came out.

Realizing I was completely in love with adventure somewhere about three seconds into the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

And many, many more. But there's one that stands out, even above all the rest. One movie that genuinely gave me my love of movies.

My dad, when I was 9 years old, took me and my older sister to see Jurassic Park in the theater. I've been a gigantic wuss all my life, so the movie should have scarred me and left me with either years of therapy bills or a strong phobia of dinosaurs. But instead, I have vivid memories of that dark theater, sitting all the way up in the back row (this was before stadium seating, so the view wasn't that great, but my dad wanted to make sure we could leave quickly if we needed to). I remember being scared during the velociraptor and t-rex scenes, but honestly more fascinated than anything else.

Jurassic Park was the first movie to really embrace CGI special effects. Much like Titanic (though more like the disaster, since the movie was still four years away), it was also a great example of the hubris of humanity, and though it went over my head at the time, it had plenty of social and political commentary. Also much like Titanic, it wasn't any one event that led to disaster, but rather a fascinating perfect storm of individual sub-plots that all added up to a spectacular failure.

For all I know, Jurassic Park may have given me my eventual fascination with the Titanic.

On top of that, I'm reasonably certain I can trace my eventual wandering onto the path of zookeeping back to Jurassic Park. Yes, even though it ended poorly for all those zoo workers, I still wanted to do it. Of course I did.

Finally, Jurassic Park seemed like an inevitability in the series of other dino-themed media that, in the 80's and early 90's, also marked my childhood: The Land Before Time, the creatively-named movie Dinosaurs!, and the even less creatively-named TV show Dinosaurs.

In other words, if one movie was an iconic inspiration that shaped me into who I am today, it's Jurassic Park.

Which is why, even though it looks campy, and even though I'm half terrified it will be awful (in a bad way), I am so excited for Jurassic World that I just might pee my pants.

I'll be live-tweeting Jurassic Park tomorrow night, May 23rd, at 7:30 PM PST (approximately, I have a job and a baby and would like to eat at some point). Tune in for snark, nostalgia, and some fun zookeeper takes on the whole thing. You can click over to my twitter feed on the right sidebar there or find me as @LTHost.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Rest of the Game of Thrones Dragon Eggs

So way back in January, I posted this awesome little gift I made Husband for Christmas. I got the idea from and made them using the techniques in this tutorial from Accio Lacquer.

And then February happened, and on Valentine's day, so did this:

This one came with a four-step scavenger hunt written in verse a la GONE GIRL. He hated me. I loved it.

In Game of Thrones, this egg is described as "black, black as midnight sea, yet alive with scarlet ripples and swirls". I accomplished this one by painting silver thumb tacks with a base coat of black acrylic paint (to save nail polish). I then painted over it with varying coats and thicknesses of a deep maroon China Glaze (which has lost its label, sorry), the same Nabi Purple Jumbo Glitter as in the Accio Lacquer tutorial (I found mine on Amazon), and then finished roughly 1/5th of the tacks with a black crackle polish for a cool stone effect.

I love this egg. It took the longest out of all of them, and the pictures don't really do it justice, because when you pick it up and turn it, it just sparkles with a whole rainbow of color. Gorgeous.

In March, Husband received yet another mysterious clue for our dating anniversary that led him to this:

This one is described as "a deep green, with burnished bronze flecks that came and went depending on how Dany turned it."

I love the dimension on this one, too, honestly. Both the black and green eggs came out much better than I expected.

For this one, I used varying shades of green acrylic paint on gold thumbtacks, topped with lots of drug store greens and green glitters. The bronze flake is L.A. Girl Rock Star Crowd Surfing, which is on Amazon here. The only challenge with this egg? The styrofoam egg underneath all those tacks was either damaged or badly formed to begin with. I noticed it, but didn't think it would make this big of an impact until the thing was finished. You can see in the second picture there towards the bottom how weirdly some of the tacks are laying as a result. So, if you choose to make your own, my suggestion is to make sure your egg is perfect when you start.

I used a lot more tacks on the two later eggs, which you can actually see in the picture below. They're more densely scaled than the white one. I think they look better, personally, but it was a buttload more work.

They're really satisfying to hold. It's weird, they feel solid and weighty and cool to the touch but warm slowly in your hands. Hard to believe they're styrofoam and thumbtacks. They feel almost exactly like you'd expect a dragon egg to feel.

Here are all three eggs together:

And, sadly, as I initially suspected, they don't all fit in their places in the box. They do fit, just not neatly cradled like I'd hoped. Oh well. Someday I'll re-visit this:

Tiny Daenerys watches over her eggs:

I didn't make Tiny Daenerys. But I think she makes a great crate guardian.

Monday, May 4, 2015

One Year Later: An Anniversary of Guilt

Edited to add: My now-born son is and was fine, thankfully.

Today is one year since my most recent horse accident, by far the worst of the ones I've had (including the one that left me with a permanent limp), on account of being pregnant at the time.

I've been trying to write this for a while. I thought it would help me to share what happened, but it turns out, all writing it out did was make me realize how much I'm not over it.

I still have a lot of unresolved emotions about the whole thing. I wanted to explain myself and the situation and finally try to work out why I'm still so upset but I think I can't for all the same reasons. No matter how many times I re-write it, I sound defensive, because I still carry incredible amounts of guilt. I will never let myself be okay with it. I think I need to not post those longer versions as much as I needed to write them to begin with.

So if you clicked over here from Twitter or somewhere else, I'm sorry this isn't juicy or long. Maybe someday I'll be brave enough to post a longer version. I just don't think that day is today.

If you're not too upset, feel free to send a hug or a kind word my way. You may not know exactly why, but I could use it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

How Much Money Do Zookeepers Make?

I recently received this question by email (thanks Kali!) and thought I'd add it to the info available on the blog. I actually don't get this question as much as I used to, and obviously my experience won't be everyone's experience, but I'll be as honest as I can without giving too much away.

So. How much money do zookeepers make?

Not much.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Keep reading.

Someone once told me something about dream jobs, like zookeeping, that's really stuck with me. Basically, a significant part of the pay in a dream job isn't money. The non-salary benefits of being a zookeeper are pretty obvious, but they do mean that you'll probably never be wealthy. Sure, you can survive on a zookeeper's wages, but the rest is up to you.

I can't really help you with hard numbers, because pay varies so much from area to area and zoo to zoo. But working full time, in my area of the country, you can expect to make about $30K per year as a zookeeper. Less, obviously, working part-time.

If that sounds low, there are other options. You can go into management, or look at the business side of things. You can get into research or lab work or even go into exotic animal veterinary medicine. There's a lot of options out there if $30k isn't enough. But, like I said, for those of us in the field, who love it, the extra pay comes from the other perks we get.

Despite being a specialized and difficult job, zookeeper pay is kind of on the low side for a skilled position. Part of the low-ish pay zookeepers get is simple economics. It's a popular job, and with so many willing candidates out there, zoos don't have to pay a lot to attract qualified people.

Just another aspect to keep in mind when you're considering if zookeeping is the right career for you!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

New page on the blog: So You Want To Be A Zookeeper

Up in the header, there's a new page for those of you who are interested in pursuing a career in zookeeping. It's my ultimate guide to getting a job as a zookeeper. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

2014, or, the year I felt meh

It's time for my annual Year In Review! 2013 was a rough year for me mentally and professionally.

But 2014? 2014 was GREAT for my mental state. I finally achieved a major goal and signed with my dream agent. I was pregnant with and had my first child. I feel like I've finally found my stride in the world and I've made it much, much closer to some milestones that have been eluding me for years.

Physically, though? Wow, 2014. Dial it back a notch.

It started in January with the worst cold Husband or I have ever had, one that left me using an inhaler for a month and made him pass out in our kitchen at 3 AM. We both got ER visits out of that one, and he even got a bonus ambulance ride there.

I'll spare you the in between, but since last January, I'm sitting at a whopping 5 ER visits, 4 injuries, 3 hospital admissions, 2 surgeries, 2 ambulance rides (not counting Husband's), 1 pregnancy (technically a holdover from 2013), and 1 child birthed. And only a tiny fraction of the above can be blamed on said child. (The pregnancy, obviously, is entirely the baby's fault).

It reads like a twisted version of the 12 days of Christmas. "On the fifth ER visit, my true love gave to me, EXPENSIVE MED-I-CAL BILLLLLLLLLLS!"

Right now I'm sitting on the couch sans one bodily organ and one facial cyst, holding my neck precariously and wishing my leg would stop aching. All echoes of things I've been through in the past year. Apparently I pushed it too hard doing a whole lot of nothing a couple nights ago, because when I woke up the next morning I couldn't turn my head.

People lament women who say that having a kid changes you. That you "can't possibly understand" until you've had a child. And until I had mine, I admit, I wasn't fond of hearing it, either. But it's true. Your whole life changes after having a kid. And it's not just because you have a partial genetic replica to care for. This body? The meat suit I'm driving around these days? Is NOT the same body I had a year ago. And I'm not whining about stretch marks or varicose veins (though let me tell you-- those both really suck, too).

No, I mean the clumsiness that caused me to fall and sprain my ankle. The resulting constant ache and unreliability of the knee I landed on when I fell. The constant ache of the other knee I landed on trying to protect my stomach when my horse had a bad moment while I was pregnant. The dull throb in my rib cage from back pain, growing-baby pains, and post-organ-removal surgery pains. The foggy memory that means I use a thesaurus a lot more than I used to. The differently-shaped, less intense, but more persistent anxiety that comes with motherhood.

My arms hurt from the 20 or so IVs I've had in the last year--no exaggeration. At least 1/4 of those blew the veins.

I've gained a lot of weight. I'm not super okay with that.

It hurts to look at myself in the mirror. My clothes fit differently or not at all. The skin on my stomach is a roadmap of downtown Manhattan in purple and pink stretch marks, stabbed through here and there with surgical scars.

I'm still learning a lot of the new tricks my body does after the year it's been through. And it's stressful. Aging is supposed to happen gradually, but I feel like a switch flipped and all of a sudden I'm ten years older. I know the human body has incredible healing abilities, but I'm scared that a lot of these things that I hate, that make me achy and uncomfortable, are the new normal. The new me. I will never quite know the old me again.

But along with the difficult has also come clarity. I'm still in awe that I created a tiny human. That I signed with not just any agent, but THE agent. And from a writing contest, no less. That I did edits and re-writes with a newborn. That I survived all these things that terrified me a year ago. That under it all, I'm still me.

So, all told, 2014 was definitely the year I felt "meh". But that doesn't mean it was a bad year. It was just... challenging in a different way.

Fingers crossed for a healthy and prosperous 2015 and beyond.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Very Crafty Christmas: Miscellania and Paper Wreaths

There were two other things I made for Christmas this year, but since I forgot to get finished pictures, I probably won't bother posting them. After all, who wants to see everything but the final product?

Instead, here's a little mish-mash of some of the smaller projects I made, and at the end are this year's paper wreaths.

I made these dishwasher magnets at Husband's request using magnet strips and washi tape sheets. I used an acrylic paint pen to write on them. I had some leftover magnet strips after "Dirty" and "Clean" were done, so I just made a couple matching bar magnets for the fridge. Can't have too many magnets, eh?

As calligraphy practice, I made some gift tags using kraft paper tags and gold ink. Just in case you can't read them, they say: "merry christmas", "Santa! I know him!", "Peace, Joy, Love", "Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal", and "Mele Kulikimaka", because that song was stuck in my head for WEEKS this year.

I look at these and see a lot of practice I still need to do, but it's not like people pay that much attention to gift tags anyway. Although I was pleasantly surprised to see a few people keep them after they got their presents and threw away the rest of the wrapping. :)

I've decided my favorite thing currently is to write funny or slightly terrible things in really pretty letters all over everything I can get my hands on.

I also really, really love brown paper packages tied with jute string and these tags. I just die.


This isn't really a gift, per se, but I adore this practice piece I made using the Flourish style worksheet from The Postman's Knock, who is basically my new favorite. Seriously, if you're a fan of pretty letters, both alphabet and postal, go check her out. She's amazing. Anyway, I had fun playing around with this style.

As a new mom, I caved to a Pinterest trend and collaborated with Infant to make these cute little ornaments. I used the same paper clay I made Baby Groot with, which actually gave me a lot of problems as it didn't dry flat for most of the ornaments. You can see a bit of wrinkling on the right edge of this one, and it was by far the flattest.

I can't personally recommend this project. I made nine of these suckers and let me tell you: wrestling a paint-covered foot away from a grabby, curious baby while trying to simultaneously keep him from touching you, himself, the furniture, the walls, and anything else in range, is barely fun once. It's definitely not fun nine times. 

Finally, I made more paper wreaths. I. Love. Paper. Wreaths.

This year, I got a little crazy and added feathers to a couple of the ones I made using paper doilies. I also made several recycling pages from old ARCs, which is my favorite way to reuse those suckers.

Large, with feathers. This is by far my favorite. It didn't sell at the only craft fair I did this year, so I'm totally keeping it. 

Small, with feathers. Zoomed in, so it looks bigger, but it's about 9" across.

Small, from book pages.

Large, from book pages.

This was my very first attempt at a colored wreath. It's still recycled book page flowers, but I hand-painted each individual flower layer with either a silver or blue acrylic paint wash before assembling the flowers and then the wreath. Then I added various pieces of silver and blue wreath picks and a larger focal point cluster at the bottom left.

I don't know if I'll ever make one like this again. Probably not unless I can sell it for a hundred bajillion dollars, or I really, really like the person I make it for (which, luckily, I do, for the person I made it for this year). It was truly a labor of love. 

Well, there you have it. That concludes 2014's Very Crafty Christmas. Here's to a crafty 2015!

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Very Crafty Christmas: Game of Thrones Dragon Egg(s)

Yeah, I went a little crazy this year.

Husband is also huge into Game of Thrones, and the theme of Infant's nursery is mythological creatures. I had made Baby Groot for Husband, but with the intention that he would live in Infant's nursery. And there was another mythological creature I thought would work out great in there, too: dragons.

I came across this tutorial on making "dragon eggs" using thumbtacks, nail polish, and styrofoam egg forms. It sounded like precisely the tedious thing I love to do, so I decided to experiment by making one egg. After reading the description of the dragon eggs Daenerys Targaryen gets in Game of Thrones, I decided to start with the cream egg.

In the book, it's described as "pale cream streaked with gold". Well, that's a bit vague, but I had a solution.

I got cheap gold thumbtacks from the dollar store and used cream acrylic paint for the base coat (much cheaper, quicker, and less smelly than nail polish). I did about 50/50 on one coat vs. two coats of paint. I liked that with one coat, a little bit of the gold color from the tack showed through.

After that, I topped the paint with a gold glitter top coat from NYC called Top of the Gold (clever, huh?), also varying the thickness and number of coats, and used a regular clear top coat over that. It took FOREVERRRRR. But the results were pretty cool.

I bought an old-timey (technical term) chest from... you guessed it, Michaels, and crafted a platform inside it using foam core board, push pins, and some satiny maroon fabric I had lying around.

On Christmas morning, I gave Husband a card that sent him on a (short) quest to find the chest. This is what greeted him when he solved the puzzle:

What's this? (And bonus Cat)

Is that what I think it is? 

No way!

There's only one egg, but there are spaces for two more. Hmmm...

A dragon egg.

He's currently trying to figure out how to hatch it. We won't be following the Targaryen example, that's for sure.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Very Crafty Christmas: Steampunk Clock

I need to apologize, firstly, for my awful photography.

I feel like it's a skill I need to learn so I can have pretty Pinterest-worthy pictures of my work, but while I can take decent landscape/ animal/ people pics, I am pretty much the worst at pictures of objects. So, apologies.

But, that's not what this post is about. Yesterday I showed you the Baby Groot I made for Husband. Today, I want to show you the steampunk shelf clock I made for Husband's cousin.

Well, technically, I made it a couple years ago. This is what it looked like in December of 2012:

I originally gave it to him in its first iteration at Christmas two years ago. It was hastily done, as I'd gotten the idea at the last minute (like many of my best ideas). Unfortunately, the execution was a little lacking, and while I loved it when I gave it to him, I found myself making him a guarantee: if it broke or was otherwise unsatisfactory, I would fix it.

One day about a year ago, it fell over on his shelf and a few pieces came off. But the real kicker was the frame, which completely fell apart. He called me on my guarantee, but at the time didn't know a secret I did: I was pregnant, which meant it would be a WHILE before I got it back to him. I also asked him if he minded if I made drastic changes to it, which luckily he didn't.

So this year, with the product of said pregnancy napping safely away, I dragged out his clock and decided to re-gift it to him, but as a better, stronger, faster version. (I could rebuild it. I had the technology).

I upgraded the frame itself, moving to a shadow box instead of a display frame. I opted for more of a military steampunk feel instead of the frilly, awful wire bending. And I added a theme to tie the whole thing together. Essentially, the little glass vial, the gears, and the watch were the only survivors from the original design.

And here it is, December 2014:

Glass glare is awful...
... so here's the insides, out of the box, for a better view. I added a few more gears, more decoration,  and made the wires more secure. There's an additional Mysterious Potion Vial (TM). And new colors for the background.
Finally, the box itself. I used a plain old 5"x7" shadow box, but added these awesome metal feet from the Tim Holtz Idea-Ology collection at Michael's. Also from Tim Holtz was this super ornate label holder. I used distress ink to age white paper and wrote on it with India ink and my dip pen. It says "Time Travel Machine- USE WITH CAUTION -HGW"

I glued them all on and made artificial nails by cutting the heads off brads and gluing those on, too. Et voila. A steampunk shelf clock. I kind of wanted to keep this one.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Very Crafty Christmas: Baby Groot!

This year for Christmas, I decided to raid my mini-Michaels craft room and make a whole bunch of stuff for gifts. I love creating, and I'm never happier than when I'm busy, so with finances being a little tight, it made more sense to give gifts from my heart (and hands) instead of a store. (Though there were plenty of those, too).

I... may have gone a little crazy. I made a lot. Too much for one post, which is why you're about to see a few of these. Today, though, I'm going to start with one of the big gifts I made for Husband.

This fall, the day before I had my first surgery, Husband and I went to go see GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and both immediately had a new favorite movie. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 became the soundtrack of my recovery as Husband played it around the house, set a few songs as the alarms on his phone, and generally sang and danced to it throughout the day.

So naturally, I wanted to do something GotG themed for him. And the thing that leapt to mind first was Baby Groot.

I've never sculpted such a large piece before. I've made smaller things, far less detailed and more general-blob-shaped. I consider this my first sculpture, and while it's definitely flawed, it came out much, much better than I expected. This is the piece I refer to in this post.

Without further ado, here he is. Behind-the-scenes pics follow the finished product.

Front- terrible angle, sorry

Back (still needs some minor repainting in his armpit)

Different angle to show potting

Sans pot

First, I made this wire armature. I've never done this before, either, but I was pretty excited with how it came out.

Then I started wrapping clay. I used a recycled paper clay that was surprisingly smooth and workable, but unfortunately left LOTS of little dried bits around as I worked. (These photos are a bit washed out, sorry. The lighting in my house is horrible and my phone flash is super bright).

More clay wrapping

Around the arms

Up and over the head

Added a bit more clay to give depth to the face, and his crown of branchy bits. The crown was cut into sections and molded a piece at a time. I removed a few, as you can see there are too many here.

Finished crown

First arm and hand. I thought the face would be the hard part, but the arms honestly gave me the most trouble. I hadn't originally planned on doing wire hands but I'm glad I did-- the clay was way too soft to stand up on its own and the number of times he fell over onto his arms would have broken them off it it weren't for the wire supports.

Second arm and hand. Same issues wrapping clay around the teeny wire fingers, but I was still glad for them later. 

I added some wood graining, thickness at the bottom for stability, and tree-trunky bits. Then I carved his face, the part I'd been dreading all along. I'm still not happy with it, but I think a lot of that comes from the face I chose to carve. I decided not to do a smiling Groot because I wanted to leave the possibility that he's dancing when we're not looking. :)
The final product one more time for reference. I painted him a dark chocolate brown, then did a light brown wash over it for depth and wood grain texture. I painted the vines and moss on in a few different shades of green. The eyes were all black with a feathering around the pupil of the lighter brown. Since the clay was made from recycled paper, for durability I sealed him with an all-purpose sealer. Unfortunately, the only one I had in the house was high gloss, hence his unnatural shininess. Someday I'll re-seal him with a low gloss or matte sealer.

I acquired the pot a long time ago at IKEA, and used styrofoam to build a base inside of it. I wedged toothpicks into the exposed armature at the bottom of Groot and stabbed him into the styrofoam, then used an all-purpose glue to hold the rocks in place (smooth pebbles from the floral section of Michael's). I went with black/ gray because I thought it looked more space-y.

And there you have it! Our very own Baby Groot.