Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Life Update: The Title of This Blog No Longer Applies (Sort Of) Edition

Hello folks. *side-eyes date on last post*

Uhhh, well, this is awkward. I don't even know-- do people still read blogs?

At one time, I wanted to be your ultimate resource for all things Zoo. Careers, animals, animal welfare questions, environmental conservation. It was so important to me that I share with you what I've spent a career learning.

It still is. But I don't know that this is the best platform to do it on anymore.

I'm thinking of archiving this blog and creating a website for my professional writing instead. I want the information here to be available to those who need it, and I'd even love to still be available for questions, for folks who have them. But I no longer feel that a blog, specifically THIS blog, is the best way to reach the people who need reaching.

Last year, I did something drastic. I quit my job at the zoo.

My career, like everyone else's, has been full of ups and downs. After a particularly awful down (almost as if in answer to it), the universe dropped an opportunity in my lap that I found impossible to refuse. Especially when it seemed I might be the only person capable of taking it. And so, late last year, my husband and I took over a large horse ranch.

It's the perfect marriage of everything I've ever done. Animal husbandry? Plenty of that. Creativity? Plenty of that, too. I built/ painted/ lettered our signs myself. We're still in the process of cleaning up the property, as the former owners left us a big mess, but they also left us a new family-- the dozens of boarders whose horses call this place home.

It's been a really exciting opportunity, not the least of which is that it's giving me the chance to have my OWN zoo.

We've got a lot of land, and I've got a lot of experience. I already have a small collection of animal ambassadors, and I spend most of my day, seven days a week, cleaning and feeding and, my favorite part, training. I get to train as much as I want, whatever I want-- it's literally my zoological dream come true. No more red tape, no more politics. It's my zoo, I can do whatever I want (within state, federal, and local reason, of course).

Now, the success hasn't gone to my head, don't worry. (Also: I wouldn't really call it success, just yet. We're definitely still getting our feet on the ground). "Whatever I want" mostly just means, whatever I need to do to prepare my animals for their jobs, which will be educating people about animals. The difference is that they're MY animals, not someone else's.

I can't even begin to express how this all makes me feel. I'm sad that I left the zoo, but reassured that I'm still welcome there. (The zoo even donated animals to me for my education programs, which is a pretty big stamp of approval, if you ask me). I'm overwhelmed, frankly, by the day-to-day of running a business and the responsibilities I've given myself (it turns out I am a workaholic). And I'm satisfied, daily, by the things I'm getting to do with my animals, and the progress I'm making. It's been a huge confidence booster, seeing them bond with me, the trust forming, the differences I've made in just a few short months of work. The things I've envied other people getting to do my entire career that are now my daily grind.

Oh, and, despite the work, I still have time to write. I still WANT to write-- no, NEED to write. The drive is still there. I was so worried when we took over that it would go away, that I would be too busy, that I wouldn't want to anymore. But it's still there.

But it does mean that things like this blog are less relevant now (not TO me, but about me, because the title no longer applies, sort of). My life is still in a zoo, it's just now one of my own creation. Still, I'm out of the industry loop now. I won't have the same cutting edge awareness that I did for so long. And it feels wrong to present myself as an expert when in just a couple years (or less), I won't be one anymore.

My focus is shifting. I'm going to concentrate on growing my business, being a better wife/ mother/ daughter/ sister/ aunt/ friend/ and writer, and zoologically speaking? I'm going to shift my brand to training and behavior. So. I may still cross-post things here, if you're around to see them, but don't expect much in the way of updates.

This has been long and rambling but I hope it makes sense and I hope it does the job, which is to say-- I've had a really, really good run at the zoo, but it's time for adventures of my own making. If you so desire, spare some well wishes for your friendly neighborhood zookeeper and know that the well wishing is, always, returned.

Much love and reminder that Rhino Horn Isn't Medicine,


Monday, January 4, 2016

2015, or, the Year I Was on Pause

Hello lovelies!

It's been a while. I'm sorry for that.

You see, I have a small human living in my house now, and that seriously complicates things, i.e., life. I wasn't doing that well at blogging before he came along and now, well. Let's just say nothing and pretend we're picking up where we left off, eh?

I also recently picked up a second (third?) job, and I'm still trying to find time to shower and hang out with my husband and horse and family and friends and be a human. It's hard. But people have been doing all that and more for, well, millenia now, so I think I'll manage.

But enough excuses. Really, I found plenty of extra time this year. I just didn't use it to blog.

I used it to write, and to create in other ways. I think I may have mentioned calligraphy in last year's post. Well, I kind of ran with that whole business and now I'm considering myself a calligrapher. I even SOLD two things I made with my calligraphy! So exciting!

I posted my Christmas card design on Reddit and someone asked to buy a few. Amazing!

As if that wasn't cool enough, I started an Instagram account to keep track of my progress and seek inspiration. So, I haven't been on Twitter much lately because I've been on Instagram instead.

Addressing Christmas card envelopes

A modern calligraphy inscription for one of my new bosses

Gift tags for this year's Christmas gifts

I also started experimenting with other visual arts. Stuff that I told myself I'd never be able to do, like paint. Well, I still mostly can't, but I'm extremely proud of some of the things that have come out of my hands these past few months.

A teeny watercolor I painted for a teeny room I made. More on that later.

Out of the frame and with a pen for scale. Teeny!

Shoehorned in here despite being completely out of nowhere: I like pretty inks.

I didn't feed my soul as much as I would have liked. I only took two short trips in 2015, which I know sounds like a lot, but Husband and I are used to a long vacation in the fall (about two weeks) that we both use to recharge and reconnect. This year we got three days. At least there were trees.

Pretty, pretty trees

This isn't a tree, but wood is the traditional gift for a 5th anniversary, and this was one of the things I made for him for ours. I gilded for the first time!

I hung out with this. A lot. I'm hanging out with it right now actually. 

In March, I took a three-day trip with my bestie to New Orleans.

The weather was awesome

This bar was so cool. What an appropriate use of a historically significant site. We met Jack Sparrow on our way out. No, seriously. It was so surreal he made my jaw drop and I couldn't stop staring at him or even speak or move. Apparently I still have a massive crush on (Captain) Jack Sparrow. 

This trip was research for a book and well worth the time and expense. It was great to catch up with my BFF and run around NOLA like two crazy people. I'd never been before and it left a lasting impression on me. I can't wait to go back.

In the spring, I watched one of my CPs (and friends) Amalia Dillin (AKA Amalia Carosella) rise to the top of the Amazon bestseller lists when her book, HELEN OF SPARTA, was picked as a Kindle First book. I was (and still am) so incredibly proud and happy of her and HELEN, an amazing book that you should all go buy right now!

And in the fall, my friend Cindy Pon released her much-awaited and much-fanfared SERPENTINE, set in the same kingdom as her SILVER PHOENIX series. It's a beautiful book, and very deserving of the accolades it's receiving. Go buy that one right now too!

But other than that, life has been ... well... pretty much the same. I've kind of felt like I was on pause all year, which is partly due to the newness of parenthood and the -- I can now admit-- post-partum depression I was likely experiencing, and partly due to being kind of a boring person, when it comes down to it.

I'm glad for the stability, though. Last year was enough excitement to last me a while.

Besides, this year I got to watch the wonder of a brand new person growing into the world. I can't believe I'm a mother, or that I created such a beautiful and adorable kid, or that he would snare hooks in my heart in ways I never believed possible for myself. Everyone always talks about how much you love your kids, but I had no idea it would be this much. I'm definitely that completely insane child-obsessed mom now. Sorry, everyone. Your bad for being friends with me.

Oh! And I almost made it all the way through 2015 without any major medical issues. The closest I came was a brain MRI in August, due to some migraines I'd been getting. Don't worry, nothing exciting came of that.

And then two weeks ago I sprained my ankle. Yup. I was so close!

Ah well. I have another goal for 2016 now.

Oh, what's that? Writing, you ask? How's writing going?

Writing is going well. Thanks for checking.

Miss you all. I promise I'll get back here someday, I just won't promise when.

In the meantime, follow me on Instagram for more of my art and feel free to prod me on Twitter to say hi! And you can always, always, always ask questions about animals here or at any of my other contact points.

Happy New Year, friends.

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.

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.