Thursday, March 31, 2011

Surfing the Bore Tide

Photo Courtesy of Frank Kovalchek, Wikimedia Commons
Anchorage's very own Cook Inlet boasts the second highest tidal fluctuations in North America: 30 feet between highs and lows! The Turnagain Arm tide comes in so quickly that it sometimes produces a massive leading wave, called a "bore tide," which can sometimes be ten feet high. Adventurous locals have occasionally taken to riding this wave on a surfboard, paddleboard or kayak, and a good day can provide a 45 minute, five-mile ride. (Due to the speed of the wave's approach and the quicksand-like nature of Turnagain Arm's mudflats, a bad day can provide massive injuries or even death. This is why I have never even batted around the idea of trying it myself!)

You gotta check out this amazing video: The Longest Ride.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Whale That Ate Jaws

Just in case there was any doubt, National Geographic has finally settled the debate once and for all.  In their amazing documentary, "The Whale That Ate Jaws," NatGeo producers explore the great white shark's only natural predator, the transient orca.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The great white shark and the killer whale are the most formidable predators in the sea. These animals are so dangerous that they would never challenge each other...or so we thought. One morning, off the Californian coast, a boatload of tourists witnessed the ultimate clash of the titans: an unexpected killing challenges the great white shark's supremacy as the ultimate predator when one became prey to a killer whale.

The Whale That Ate Jaws examines this extraordinary incident. Featuring amazing underwater footage of two whales feeding on the shark, this show reveals an astonishing new perspective on the relationship between the ocean's two top predators.

Here's the full article:  

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Baby Porpoise Tsunami Survivor Rescued

A tiny glimpse of hope in the midst of a terrible tragedy...  Here's a brand-new article from Discovery News that details the rescue of a baby porpoise in Japan....


Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Pet shop owner Ryo Taira is one of the animal rescue volunteers helping with search efforts in Sendai, Japan, following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 30-foot tsunami on March 11, that left more than 10,000 people dead and 17,500 others still missing.

On Tuesday, 11 days after the disaster, someone alerted Taira to a baby porpoise trapped in a rice field about a mile from shore. He went to investigate and found the porpoise struggling in the shallow seawater that flooded the field.

Reuters reported that Taira first tried to net the "dolphin," but the image shows clearly that the animal Taira is rescuing is in fact a porpoise.

Both dolphins and porpoises are classified as toothed whales in the scientific suborder, Odontoceti, and like all odontocetes can use echolocation to detect objects underwater. But porpoises with their flat faces are in the family Phocoenidae while dolphins with their long beaks are in the family Delphinidae. Divided at the family level in classification makes porpoises just as different from dolphins as dogs are from bears. Tiara rescued a finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) a vulnerable species found in Asian waters.

To get the porpoise back to safety, Taira waded into the field and caught the four-foot long animal in his arms. He cradled the baby porpoise out of the rice paddy to the road where he and friends wrapped wet towels around the animal and drove it over to the beach. The animal appeared to perk up once it was back into the Pacific Ocean, Taira told reporters.

"I don't know if it will live, but it's certainly a lot better than dying in a rice paddy," Taira told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Still and Quiet Madness: QueryTrackers Making Tracks

Anita Howard, a YA and adult literary author represented by Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency, just started a new blog series on her site, "A Still and Quiet Madness." She plans to track successful authors who have gotten their starts on (An EXCELLENT resource, if you haven't discovered it already! And Anita is a wonderful person to know... Her grace and perpetual thoughtfulness are always welcome on the QT comment boards.)

Below is her first official interview: with Brenda St. John Brown, who recently signed with literary agent Marlene Stringer. Congrats to both Anita and Brenda for a job well done! :)

A Still and Quiet Madness: QueryTrackers Making Tracks, #1: "Today, we begin the official first of a series on successful authors. (For the unofficial first, hop over to my LiveJournal blog..."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Help me name my main character!!

The protagonist in my work in progress is the seventeen year-old, half-Hawaiian/half-Irish daughter of a famous dolphin researcher. I settled on the name "Kai" several years ago, inspired by--of all things--a bottle of Kona Wailua Wheat Ale

(It's kind of a funny story, actually. The underside of the bottle cap graciously teaches you Hawaiian words while intoxicating you, and "Kai" apparently means "ocean." Perfect.)

Photo Courtesy of puuikibeach
Problem is... There are a slew of books about mermaids and sirens on their way to the bookstores, and at least two authors have decided to name their minor characters "Kai." (They've also chosen to make their "Kais" boys, which is really tripping me out about now.)

My brilliant idea seems not quite so brilliant anymore--either that, or those authors have been drinking quite a lot of Kona beer themselves. Either way, I'd like to change Kai's name into something a bit more original, and I'd love your input. (Some background... Kai is soft-spoken, analytical and borderline obsessive-compulsive. Her character arc in the story is her journey from doubting herself and viewing herself as a "coattail rider" to realizing how intelligent and capable she really is.)

I've come up with a few more name options for Kai, and I have posted a poll to the right of this entry so you can pick your favorite. Thanks in advance for your help!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Quirks and Idiosyncrasies of Dolphins

The time I spent learning about marine mammal training and working at Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, FL, forever sealed dolphins as my all-time favorite animals. I was continuously amazed by how complex our dolphins were, and each one's individual traits and characteristics made me realize there is no such thing as a stereotypical dolphin. Just like humans, each animal had its own specific preferences, moods and interaction styles.

I spent every free moment devouring every dolphin book I could find, and I quickly learned how little most people actually know about these charismatic creatures. (Among many others, I highly recommend "To Touch a Wild Dolphin" by Rachel Smolker.)

I was also excited to learn that--like humans--dolphins often enjoying engaging in play for no other reason except that it probably feels good and strengthens social bonds. Here's a great YouTube video taken in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, that depicts an enthusiastic pod of surfing dolphins. Enjoy!

The Hotdog

An obsessive-compulsive straightener and organizer by nature, I like to occasionally attack the files in my computer--pulling them from their neatly-arranged folders and re-organizing them in some new and hair-brained way. (This shiny, improved organization system usually only lasts a few weeks, as I generally return the files to their previous conditions, only to repeat the process indefinitely whenever the mood strikes.)

During my latest "spring cleaning," I uncovered this little essay, a piece called "The Hotdog" that I wrote during the summer of 2007. It's a little clunky and outdated--as my writing style has thankfully developed quite a bit during the past four years--but it's still kinda entertaining, so I thought I'd include it. (Once you have finished reading, please check out my disclaimer under my "Comments" section. The event portrayed here actually took place during the Fourth of July 1999, and MANY things have changed since then! :))

Photo Courtesy of Chasqui (Luis Tamayo)

A glob of ketchup wobbled unsteadily on the corner of the hotdog’s paper wrapper. Streaks of mustard and relish bulged at its edges as I watched the man bring it to his lips.

Quivering once, and then twice, the ketchup blob teetered. Unaware, the man smiled, his eyes blurred through a haze of beer and cigarettes.

A vague feeling of revulsion materialized in the pit of my stomach as I watched the man grip the hotdog like a prize trophy. Guiding it toward his mouth, he wrapped his lips around its sesame seed bun and bit down hard.

It was like slow motion.

The ketchup blob catapulted off the edge of its wrapper and plummeted downward. Several red globules burst apart and scattered in mid-air.

Like tiny red missiles, the globules streamed toward the man’s white tank top. I blinked and watched with detached amusement as the first one made impact. It was soon followed by the rest, splattering and cascading in gooey rivulets down the front of his shirt.

For an instant, everything stopped. The hotdog lingered, half-chewed, in the man’s mouth. His companion hesitated, her cigarette poised sideways in her fingertips. Grey ash accumulated as it smoldered, and I suddenly realized I was holding my breath.

In the space of a heartbeat, the situation was over.

A sudden breeze scattered the cigarette ash in the wind, and a pair of seagulls squawked as they glided overheard. The man swallowed, shifting the remaining hotdog away from his lips.

Assessing the condition of his filthy, ruined shirt, he reacted surprisingly.

“Shit,” he said, his smile revealing one missing tooth and the remnants of sesame seeds at the corners of his lips.

Raising one hand, he wiped the stain with his palm and smeared it diagonally across his belly. Excess ketchup collected on the heel of his hand.

“Still good,” he said, bringing it to his face for inspection. Proud of his unique display of ingenuity, he smiled once more and opened his mouth.

My feeling of disgust intensified as I watched the man’s mouth close around the ketchup in his hand. Like a leech or some sort of disgusting swamp creature, he siphoned the excess gunk off his palm, grinning in satisfaction as he savored its taste and swallowed.

I felt my eyes widen. Did the man honestly just suck tank top ketchup off the bottom of his hand?

Appalled, I scanned the crowded marina for another eyewitness. Although surrounded by sunburned Panama City locals and tourists, I couldn’t find anyone who seemed the slightest bit unsettled by the man’s public display of bad judgment.

Watching the masses—a chaotic assortment of BBQ vendors, guitar players and people in tents selling friendship bracelets, rebel flags and Harley Davidson t-shirts—I suddenly became aware of a nauseating tightness developing in my chest.

It was an unfamiliar feeling. Since infancy, I had attended every single Fourth of July celebration here without incident. My memories of this marina were usually fantastic: punctuated by sugary clouds of cotton candy and fireworks displays. But suddenly now—seventeen years into my perfect festival attendance—I felt something different welling up inside me.

At first, it was an abstract sensation. Hazy and indistinct, it hovered unformed in the back of my mind. Impalpable to my probing, it swirled just beyond my reach and stubbornly refused to take shape.

Little by little, however, the sensation began to materialize. As its edges formed, it became an emotion, a string of thoughts, and then a scattering of words and phrases. As it developed, the message gained urgency. Swelling forward, it surged, crested and burst into a simple, profound and undeniable truth—one that would alter the course of my life forever.

Shuddering, I tasted my words. Although startled by their acidity, I immediately recognized their accuracy. Scanning my surroundings, I swallowed hard and acknowledged my realization.

I hated this town, and I hated everyone in it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

So I've Been Writing This Book...

Photo Courtesy of Tom Murphy VII, Wikimedia Commons
"So I've been writing this book..." A phrase I've been saying to a few select people--with more than a little trepidation--for the past year and a half.

It's not that writing is a new development for me... I've been piddling away on projects since elementary school, and before that, I drew rambling, complicated picture books--ridiculous, imaginative stories I recited verbatim to anyone and everyone who would listen.

Starting in fourth grade, I also slaved away in journals, sometimes staying up hours past my bedtime to painstakingly record every detail of my day. Dialogue, blocking, scenery-building... It wasn't enough for me to simply recount events; I had to recreate them with enough description and depth that an amnesia-inflicted me could later pick them up and build my memories from scratch if I needed to.

(The amnesia thing... A real, very terrifying fear of mine as a child. Spurred on by one too many TV movies--especially the ones where someone gets thrown off a boat and ends up washed ashore and devoid of their memories--I truly believed it wasn't a question of if I would get my memory wiped... It was simply a question of when.)

As a child, I always knew instinctively that my "thing you are supposed to do before you die" was to get a novel published. I dabbled in animal stories first--park rangers befriending eagles and coyotes, girls befriending horses, girls befriending bears, a very obvious rip-off of the movie Homeward Bound... Then I moved on to the world of fantasy... Mermaids and sea pixies, Lord of the Rings-inspired troupes of motley characters heading off into the great unknown to conquer an unfathomable evil... I switched my attention to visual arts in high school, became embarrassed by my quirky need to write in college, and graduated with a very practical minor in Magazine Journalism, thinking I should probably just grow up and forget about that whole fiction thing.

At some point in my early twenties, I came back to my roots and decided I needed to follow-through with my original plan of getting a novel published. I gave myself the deadline of my 25th birthday, but stagnancy and a preoccupation with other things--primarily booze and boys, and then the very real romance of finally finding my husband--made this goal unobtainable. I gave myself a concession: I would write a book and get it published by the time I turned 30.

But what do you say after so many years of not saying anything? My first attempt at a novel was a "returning to your roots" story set in my hometown of Panama City, FL, but I quickly learned that beautiful characters and beautiful settings will only take you so far before you realize you have no plot and no idea how to build a plot.

My second attempt was pretty hilarious. Encouraged by Bridget Jones' Diary, I thought I could simply turn my dialogue and scenery-filled journals into a memoir, so I actually spent three or four months transcribing every entry into a Word document. I ignored all practical advice--i.e., nobody wants to read your diary unless you're famous--and I actually sent off two query letters to big agencies in NYC when I was finished. Query letters that were met by immediate rejections, and query letters that no doubt ended up somewhere under the, "Can you believe some idiot actually pitched this to me?" file. (When I get pissed off at folks for cluttering up the path to literary agents nowadays, I always have to remind myself that I definitely was one of those folks during this project.)

During the summer of 2009, I finally got my big idea. And this time, I paid attention to the how-to books. I built a real story around real characters and a real plot, and I actually wrote a legitimate novel. For real this time. (A 99,000 word YA urban fantasy set in and starring all the things I love.)

So, you might be wondering why I've been saying "So I've been writing this book..." with more than a little trepidation lately. It's a solid book and a solid idea; why haven't I been telling everyone I know?

Well, it's pretty simple. Like most grounded, practical folks I know, I've always viewed the phrase, "I'm going to become an author," in the same category as the phrases "I'm going to become an actor," and "I'm going to become a rock star." Only crazy people chase those dreams, right?

Plus, there's always that ever-present, "Am I even good at this?" question. Sure, I've been writing my whole life, but my little school awards and the prizes I've won for essays seem meager and pathetic compared to the accolades many published writers have received. What if this whole thing never works out?

My other hesitation... I'm a pragmatist, and I hate talk. I can't stand those folks who stand around twirling their mustaches, patting themselves on the backs and saying, "Hmmm, yes. I'm going to write this amazing book and get it published someday..."

So, for the most part, I've been pretty silent about this latest writing endeavor. Even some of my closest friends don't realize I've been working on a novel for the past year and a half; they would be even more surprised to learn that I've finished it.

I'm finally posting all this online because I feel like I'm really in this now. I've done my research, I have lots of back-up plans, and I'm ready to finally do this. For real this time. :)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Dawn of the Next Big Thing

Here's an interesting article I found on Lesson to be learned: "The next wildly successful series will emerge only when someone writes something fantastic that teens want to read and, more importantly, want to tell their friends about."

When Twilight Fades: Young Adult Fiction and the Dawn of the Next Big Thing
April 15, 2010
By Helen Gregg

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At a sold-out seminar last Tuesday hosted by Publisher’s Weekly, three panelists and a room full of representatives from the publishing industry gathered to discuss emerging trends in young adult and teen fiction, and to try to predict what might be next.

The panelists, two literary agents and a Hollywood literary scout, did not see an end of paranormal fiction in the near future. Claire Lundberg from MGM said she is presented with “a lot of paranormal; a lot of vampires, angels, zombies and a fair amount of werewolves are still getting optioned. I’m tired of it but I’m not sure the kids are.” One of the literary agents, Rebecca Sherman of Writer’s House, said the paranormal trend was continuing, but “with a spin.” She cited campy new novels featuring overweight, unattractive vampires, and one novel, Blood Thirsty, about a pale, brooding boy who receives an unprecedented amount of female attention because of his resemblance to a Twilight vampire. Stephen Barbara, of Foundry Literary + Media, said writers were looking beyond vampires to other paranormal creatures. He referenced Tricia Rayburn’s upcoming series, Siren, a novel about mermaids with plenty of romance and a contemporary spin. He also reported a growing number of books about angels, in an attempt to capture not only the teen Twilight fans but the “large Christian market” as well.

Apart from the paranormal, the panelists and audience were also looking forwards to the next popular subgenre among teens. Noticing teens’ attraction to darker subject matter, the conversation turned to a rise in dystopian novels for YA audiences, citing the popularity of the series The Hunger Games and its forthcoming film adaptation. The two literary agents revealed they each were working with dystopian novels as well, suggesting an emerging trend. Lundberg, however, held reservations about these novels finding success on the big screen. She referenced the recent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a popular novel made into an incredibly depressing film, and one that did not fare well at the box office. Even though one librarian assured the crowd that teens, including her own children, liked depressing books and movies, the subgenre may quickly disappear in the YA market if it does not find widespread commercial success.

However, the race to the next popular subgenre may not lead to the next million-copy series. Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, who was in the audience but participated several times in the discussion, reminded the audience that a panel or publisher didn’t guess that a single mom in Britain would write a worldwide phenomenon about a boy wizard on napkins, she just did and it was. Similarly Twilight began, not followed, a trend. She offered one of the final thoughts for the panel, which was the next wildly successful series will emerge only “when someone writes something fantastic” that teens want to read and, more importantly, want to tell their friends about.

Iditarod 39 Kicks-Off in Anchorage

It's that time again... Visitors from all around the world have arrived in Anchorage just in time to catch the ceremonial and official starts of Alaska's 39th Iditarod sled dog race. Having been around mushers quite a lot these past few years (and owning two Alaskan sled dogs myself), I can certainly attest to the excitement and anticipation everybody feels before this big event... Especially the pups! Below are a few pics I took of Iditarod 37 in 2009, and this link will take you to Anchorage Daily News' full Iditarod section and photo gallery: Anchorage Daily News.

Iditarod 39 kicks-off in Anchorage
The Associated Press
Published: March 5th, 2011 05:57 PM

Last Modified: March 5th, 2011 07:25 PM

The ceremonial start of the world's longest sled dog race is always a festive affair in which one of the city's main streets becomes crowded with dog teams and people seeking to greet their favorite mushers and bid them good luck in the 1,150-mile race to Nome.

The serious mushing begins Sunday at the restart in Willow, where there will be far fewer fans and less hoopla as the 16-dog teams leave the start line -- and the clock begins ticking -- in the quest to be the first to reach the coastal gold-rush town.

If it is a fast race, the winner could cross the finish line in eight or nine days.

Defending champion Lance Mackey is trying for his fifth consecutive Iditarod win. He is coming to the race with a young, untested team compared to last year. His dogs wore hot pink booties on their feet for the ceremonial start.

Mackey finished the 2010 race in eight days, 23 hours, 59 minutes -- the second-fastest finish in Iditarod history. The 40-year-old Fairbanks musher said there is nothing in his way to prevent him from reaching Nome first, again.

"If people didn't think I could do four and I did, why shouldn't I do five?" Mackey said.

"I have the ability, the confidence and the dog team to do it, and it should be a great race."

Paul Kurtz, 56, was one of hundreds of fans cheering on the mushers. He said a trip to Alaska to attend the Iditarod and meet Mackey was on his "bucket list" of things to do. He plans to get a photo of himself shaking Mackey's hand blown up to poster size.

"Not too many people impress me, but he does," said Kurtz, a general contractor from West Bloomfield, Mich. "What he has been able to accomplish -- to dominate a sport to the extent that he has."

Sixty-two teams are entered in this year's Iditarod. The field includes nine of the top 10 teams. Absent is four-time champion Jeff King who was third last year and retired from the Iditarod.

The top 30 finishers in this year's race will share a purse of $528,000. The winner will get $50,400 and a new truck.

Cain Carter, Mackey's 19-year-old stepson, said he's gunning for the Rookie of the Year Award. He said he has a lot of confidence and determination and believes he will do well in his first Iditarod.

When his then not-so-famous stepfather was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001, Carter stepped up and helped out by feeding dogs, cleaning out runs and occasionally running his dogs. That experience, and all that Mackey showed him after that, helped him a lot, he said.

"Once he taught me, it was a lot easier," Carter said.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in 1973 to commemorate a race against time, when sled dogs and drivers teamed up in 1925 to defeat a deadly outbreak of diphtheria in Nome.

It was feared the disease would decimate Eskimo families living near the gold-rush town on Alaska's western coastline. Dog drivers drove teams 674 miles from Nenana to Nome to deliver the lifesaving serum in five days.

Ray Redington Jr., the grandson of Joe Redington, who is credited with founding the race, said he would love to win the Iditarod but has to be realistic about his chances given how competitive the race has become.

"Now, it is definitely serious," said Redington, Jr., who finished 11th last year.

The Iditarod is not all that serious for some mushers.

Kris Hoffman of Steamboat Springs, Colo., is one of 13 rookies in the race. The 34-year-old guide operates a dog sled touring business and said he's hoping for a good adventure.

"For me, this is a vacation," he said.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Alaska Finally Joins the A-List

Photo Courtesy of Me
I've been a little homesick for the Great Land lately, and it looks like I'm in good company. According to an Associated Press featured article that appeared on TMCnet World News on February 23, 2011: “The real Alaska has finally joined the A–list. Long a bit player in the entertainment world, the 49th state increasingly is sought out by TV and film producers for its unmatchable lure of spectacular beauty and peril, of wild adventures and dangerous jobs.” Phil Segal, president of Original Productions, reports, “(Alaska) represents the allure of the unknown, akin to Old West wagon trains heading to an uncharted destination… We're in Alaska for one reason and one reason only. It is an amazing, cultural den that has so many stories to be told. It is this incredibly rich final frontier that is an amazing backdrop for storytelling.”

With the recent successes of television shows like “Deadliest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers,” “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” and “Flying Wild Alaska"—which opened to a record 2.6 million viewers this January—Alaska is now home to more series per capita than any other state, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. Drew Barrymore’s newest feature film “Everybody Loves Whales”—set in Barrow and shot on location in Alaska—is set to be released on January 13, 2012, and John Voight just finished filming a new supernatural thriller (tentatively titled "Ghost Vision") during the winter of 2010-2011. On Tuesday, February 22, 2011, a team of action-movie producers arrived in Anchorage to research a feature film about a dangerous mountain rescue (tentatively titled “The Peak”) that they hope to film in Alaska as early as next year.

Young Adult Fiction Trends

Photo Courtesy of Lin Kristensen, Wikimedia Commons

Did a little research...
According to the 3rd Edition of Best Books for Young Adults, book sales for U.S. teens rose more than 20% between 1999 and 2005.  The popularity of urban fantasy in particular has also skyrocketed, thanks in part to the successes of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. 

In a recent interview, Kim Patton, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, made this 2011 prediction: “Generally, books with supernatural aspects hold a lot of appeal to teens.  Fantasy books continue to be popular.  Romances and urban fiction are quickly gaining must-read status.  Urban fiction is getting more and more popular, whether teens live in the big city or in small towns.  At my library, we have a lot of teens who can’t wait for the next supernatural thriller (zombies, ghosts, vampires, etc.).”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cyberstalking Myself... The Alaska Zoo's Tuesday Night Programs

Photo Courtesy of John Gomes Photography

The proudest accomplishment of my animal training career is the moment during the spring of 2008 when I finally made progress with an ornary and sometimes aggressive six month-old Bactrian camel named Knobby, who quickly became one of the loves of my life. Throughout the next two and a half years, I worked with Knobby every single day, and he became one of the most reliable and affectionate animals I've ever encountered. Here's a YouTube video Alaska Zoo Photographer John Gomes took during Knobby's and my summer 2010 Tuesday Night Educational Presentation. I love this camel more than words can describe: Camel Demonstration

Cyberstalking Myself... The Alaska Public Lands Information Center

Check out this article written by the rangers at the National Park Service's Alaska Public Lands Information Center, where I did weekly animal outreaches during the summers of 2009 and 2010.  Always a highlight of my week!

Alaska Zoo Programs

Learn about and meet Alaskan Zoo Animals!
Every Thursday at 2:00 p.m. this summer

Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service

Join Lisa from the Alaska Zoo for a program featuring live Alaskan animals. Lisa will discuss the life and biology of each featured animal. She will also speak about the importance of zoos in this time of dwindling wildlife populations.
Past animals have included a red fox, a porcupine, moose, musk ox, wolf pups, a sea otter, and many more!

About Lisa
Lisa Chickos is an animal trainer and the Outreach Coordinator for the Alaska Zoo. She currently works with the Zoo's red foxes, porcupines, owls, muskrats, magpies, mountain goats, raccoons, and reptiles.

The Alaska Zoo
It's mission is "to promote the conservation of arctic, sub-arctic and like-climate species through education, research and community enrichment."
The Alaska Zoo is proactive in its conservation efforts and research, as well as, education programs. The Zoo is a part of the Species Survival Program for tigers and snow leopards, and the Polar Bear International helping with the conservation of polar bears. Also, the Zoo is involved in animal husbandry and research on a variety of scales in part with the University of Alaska Anchorage.  For more information visit

Cyberstalking Myself... Arctic Warrior Newspaper

Here's an article that originally appeared in Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson Army Bases' Arctic Warrior newspaper on April 23, 2010.  My friend Mary Chambers and I did a series of outreaches for the children of Ursa Minor Elementary School, and the most unflattering photographs ever were taken of both of us. :)

Alaska Zoo staff brings animals to local school, teach students

Story and photos by David Bedard
Fort Richardson PAO

Daisy, a prickly North American porcupine scratched frantically at the floor of her crate until Mary Chambers, Alaska Zoo camp coordinator, fed the large rodent a bit of bread during an April 19 exhibition for Ursa Minor Elementary School students.

An animal best avoided in the wild, the gregarious Daisy served as part of a weeklong Alaska Zoo exhibition for several classrooms at the school and was followed later in the week by great horned owl Peabody and an exhibition of numerous animal artifacts.

Lisa Chickos, Alaska Zoo Outreach Coordinator, said the exhibitions help to bring knowledge of the zoo's animals to Southcentral Alaska classrooms.

“We have a pretty thorough outreach program, the goal of course is to be able to inspire students and introduce them to the zoo if they can't get there themselves,” she said. “So we can have a traveling set of exhibits where we will take animals or artifacts out and into the classroom.”

Ms. Chambers served as handler during Daisy's visit to the school, explaining how porcupines survive in the wild and dispelling many of the myths surrounding the thorny mammal.

Perhaps just as remarkable as being a porcupine is Daisy's story of how she came into possession of the zoo.

Ms. Chambers said the rodent's mother was killed when she was run over by a car before Daisy was even born. A boy unwittingly came to the rescue when his parents drove upon the tragic scene.

“This 12-year-old boy in the car wanted to be a veterinarian,” Ms. Chambers explained. “So he was really curious and was starting to learn all about animals.

“His parents suggested that he carry around a dissection kit,” she continued. “He saw this porcupine laying in the road that had already passed away so he decided to dissect her and, weird as it is, he cuts open the porcupine and inside they find a baby porcupine and it's still alive. They pulled her out and she survived.”

Although the family initially decided to keep Daisy as a pet, the musky rodent who likes to chew on everything eventually proved too much to handle.

“Do you think it's going to be a good idea to keep this animal as a pet?” Ms. Chambers asked with emphatic no responses from the wide-eyed children. “Yeah, it's kind of tricky and they smell really bad.”

The family then called the zoo and resigned the animal to their expert care.

Ms. Chambers said Daisy has been trained like all exhibition animals to behave well when brought outside of the zoo's auspices.

“She came to us so young that we were able to train her to do stuff like this, to go in a crate,” Ms. Chambers explained. “Believe it or not, when I go into her enclosure, she actually comes flying down – porcupine flying, so really not that fast – from her den and she will come right to the crate and walk right in.”

During a subsequent exhibition, students were treated to a visit from Peabody, a great horned owl who was brought to the zoo after the injured raptor was rehabilitated by the Bird Treatment and Learning Center.

Both Ms. Chambers and Ms. Chickos returned to the school April 22 with artifacts of animals which can be seen at the zoo.

During the exhibition, Ms. Chambers explained there are three ways animals are brought into the zoo.

“Do you guys think we just take the animals out of the wild and put them in cages because they're cute?” she asked rhetorically. “They're very cute but we would never do that because we would prefer they are raised in the wild.”

The first reason Ms. Chambers cited is because an animal like Peabody is found injured.
“An animal might break its leg or its wing or it might injure an eye,” she detailed. “They might have an injury that prevents them from surviving on their own in the wild so they have to come to the zoo in order for us to take care of them.”

The second reason is because an animal like Daisy is found orphaned.

“If an animal loses its mom or its dad than he's going to miss out on all of the cool lessons that he needs to learn from his mom on how to find food and how to defend himself against predators,” Ms. Chambers related. “So if an animal is orphaned in the wild, they can come to the zoo and we can take care of it.”

The third reason is because an animal belongs to an endangered species like snow leopard breeding pair Molly and Kaz.

Ms. Chambers said the artifacts are either naturally shed from zoo animals or are donated by authorities who have seized the remains of illegally hunted animals.

The artifacts are used to demonstrate the unique characteristics of the zoo's animals.

“At the Alaska Zoo, we have 120 different animals and these animals are all arctic animals,” Ms. Chambers elaborated. “We live close to the arctic and it gets really cold here so all of our animals have these really cool adaptations to be able to survive in really cold weather.”

Ms. Chambers and Ms. Chickos reached into their totes to produce porcupine quills, a Dall sheep horn, a caribou antler, a polar bear claw and a black bear pelt among other artifacts to illustrate animal adaptations.

Ms. Chickos said she always enjoys an opportunity to represent the Alaska Zoo through community outreach.

“It's a nice perk,” she said with a smile. “It's fun. I think we both really enjoy it because it gives us a chance to get out into the community, travel around, talk to students and have a real up close learning experience with them.

“We find you can talk about abstract concepts like environmental awareness and conservation all day long but it's really when you have a live animal or some sort of artifact from the animal that students can see and smell and touch,” Ms. Chickos continued. “That's really when they start to get inspired and really start to care about it so it's nice for us to make that connection, whether at the zoo or in their classroom.”

Cyberstalking Myself... Anchorage Daily News

It's always entertaining to cyberstalk yourself, and today's dreary weather seems a good reason for it.  Here's an article written by the Anchorage Daily News on August 3, 2008, that was later picked up by  It's the first time I was ever quoted in a newspaper...  A big day for both Maxie and me!

Photo by Lisa Chickos

SOUTH ANCHORAGE: They make up more than half the collection here.

He slowly pokes his nose from underneath a tan blanket, revealing three inches of thick black eyeliner.  After Max, the 1-year-old raccoon, jumps down from his wooden hideout, you can see his bushy black and tan striped tail.

“He’s still really shy,” said Lisa Chickos, an Alaska Zoo keeper.

Max was illegally brought up from Texas as a pet and was spotted in Soldotna, walking down the street alone, wearing a dog harness. He was living in someone’s garage, Chickos said.

He and other orphaned or injured animals make up more than half the collection at the Alaska Zoo in South Anchorage.

With three-fourths of zoo visitors coming during the summer months, Max and his deserted or disabled friends are getting a lot of attention these days.

“Even people who have issues with zoos, when they find out how many are orphaned and injured in the collection, they can appreciate that,” said executive director Patrick Lampi. “We don’t go and yank healthy animals out of the wild.”

All the orphaned or injured animals except the polar bears are land mammals or birds, and most — like moose, brown and black bears and bald eagles — are native to Alaska.

This is all atypical, say Outside zoo leaders.

It’s unusual for zoos to have such a large portion of the viewing collection made up of orphaned or injured animals, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, headquartered in Maryland.

Most zoos have rehabilitation programs for certain species, with the hope of releasing them back into the wild, he said.

And unlike the case at the Alaska Zoo, many of the animals that zoos take in are marine mammals, like manatees, sea turtles, dolphins and whales.

The Alaska Zoo also stands out internationally.

“In Africa, a number of zoos have been converted into ‘sanctuaries,’ caring primarily for orphaned primates and other wildlife, but as a general rule the number of such animals comes up only for a small percentage of the collection of a zoo,” said Peter Dollinger, executive director of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, in an e-mail from Switzerland.

So what’s up with the Alaska Zoo?

It’s cared for injured or orphaned animals since opening 40 years ago, Lampi said.

“It’s just the fact that it is Alaska and there is so much more wildlife around,” he said. “People have been in most of the other states for longer periods of time and the population of wildlife is not as abundant.  This was all animal territory not too long ago.”

Once the state Department of Fish and Game finds an orphaned or injured animal and a place for it to go — often a zoo Outside — the Alaska Zoo serves as a temporary holding facility.

Alaska Zoo keepers provide the animal with a home and administer any necessary testing or vaccinations before the recipient zoo takes it in, Lampi said.

But they require a destination before agreeing to do that.

It would be unethical to knowingly take in for a few months “cute and cuddly” orphans that couldn’t permanently stay at the Alaska Zoo or another zoo, Lampi said.

In rare cases, orphaned bear cubs or moose calves have to be killed when wildlife officials know that no one wants them.

On July 4, an Alaska wildlife trooper killed a black bear in East Anchorage because it refused to be shooed away. Afterwards, two cubs were discovered hiding nearby. No one wanted the cubs, so they were also killed.

Killing cubs is a last resort and generally done only when the mother bear is also killed, said Rick Sinnott, area biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game.

Many zoos don’t need black bears from Alaska because they are common in most U.S. states, can live up to 20 years and only two or three can live together in a zoo exhibit, Lampi said.

Orphaned moose calves also run into a housing shortage because not every zoo displays them and transportation costs are pricey from Alaska to the Lower 48, he said.

Two orphaned moose calves came to the zoo in June. One is scheduled to stay as part of the collection and the other will go on to another zoo, Lampi said.

Of all of the orphaned and injured animals that come through the zoo, about 20 percent end up staying.

“If your exhibits are full with animals that are healthy, you just don’t have the room (to keep all of them),” he said.

Some live long lives.

Take Tiska, the bald eagle, the oldest injured animal at the zoo. She was spotted on Huffman Road struggling to fly in 1973 and joined the zoo family soon after.

Tiska has a poorly developed breast muscle that was most likely caused by living scrunched in a small cage, Lampi said.

There’s also Mary Ellen, the three-legged lynx, who was hit by a car on the Seward Highway near the O’Malley Road exit in 1999.

She suffered a fractured pelvis and nerve damage and had to have one of her legs partially amputated.

Tiska, Mary Ellen and others are placed in living quarters to suit their disabilities, and they are still able to serve as “ambassadors for their species” to the public, Lampi said.

“We can’t obviously simulate their natural environment completely, but we can provide them with healthy homes.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I Love a Good Lake Monster!

Here's an interesting article I just found on

North America's Lake Monsters
Analysis by Benjamin Radford
Wed Mar 2, 2011 08:20 AM ET

The Internet has been buzzing about a recent photograph allegedly depicting a monster surfacing in a British lake. As Eric Niiler of Discovery News noted, "The latest entry in the lake monster sweepstakes is making a bid for glory [is the] 'Bownessie' of Lake Windermere, England....Tom Pickles and Sara Harrington, work colleagues who were kayaking at the lake as part of a team-building exercise, snapped this photo of the possible sea creature with a mobile phone. It appears to show a multi-humped black object moving through the water from left to right."

When the news broke, many people were surprised. Not just that a dark, multi-humped monster had supposedly been photographed on a lake, but that it wasn't at Loch Ness.

Most people know about Nessie, the denizen in Ness, one of Scotland's many lakes (or "lochs"). Reports of something odd in Loch Ness only date back to the 1930s, and a famous 1934 photo of a silhouetted, serpentine head and neck helped propel Nessie into international stardom (unfortunately the photo was later revealed to be a hoax).

The lake has been searched for nearly 80 years using everything including cameras, divers, sonar, submarines, and dolphins, yet no real evidence has been found.

"If you're interested in lake monsters, you needn't go all the way to Europe," Daniel Loxton told Discovery News.

Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic magazine and co-author of an upcoming book on lake monsters, says that "every human culture has stories of water monsters, and besides, Europeans brought their own monsters with them to North America. European-style monsters manifested early in tributaries of the St. Lawrence river, and then along the coast of Maine. They were reported in lakes Erie and Ontario. Today, monsters are said to haunt dozens of other lakes across Canada and the United States."

Crescent Lake is a picturesque body of water in northeastern Newfoundland near the small town of Robert’s Arm. Robert's Arm is gorgeous, with walking trails snaking over lush green hills and around the placid lake. The lake, deep and cold, is allegedly home to a lake monster known as Cressie. As you enter the town, a life-size(?) model of Cressie greets visitors.

Quebec's Lake Memphremagog, which extends down into north-central Vermont, is said to be home to a lake monster, Memphre, with reports supposedly dating as far back as 1816.

In British Columbia's Lake Okanagan, there supposedly exists the Ogopogo monster. It is said to be dark, up to 70 feet long, and have a series of humps. It is the world's second most famous creature after Nessie, and like many lake monsters, native Indians are said to have described the beast in their legends and myths.

America has its share of reputed aquatic beasts as well, including Lake Tahoe's Tessie. But the best known lives in Lake Champlain, which forms the border between Vermont and New York. "Champ," as the creature is called, has allegedly been seen by hundreds of witnesses and is anywhere between 10 and 187 feet long, has one or more humps, and is gray, black, dark green, or other colors.

The small town of Port Henry, New York, is the self-proclaimed "Home of Champ" and has a large wooden board that records monster sightings. The best evidence for Champ -- in fact, for any lake monster -- was a 1977 photo taken by Sandra Mansi showing what appeared to be a dark head and hump in the lake. Later investigation showed that the object was almost certainly a floating log that looked serpentine from a certain angle.

All these monsters have at least one thing in common: a lack of good scientific evidence.

The Lake Windermere "Bownessie" photo seems likely to be a hoax; in fact Loren Coleman, Director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, has his suspicions: "The evidence brought forth is only as trustworthy as the people bringing it to us. What do we know about Tom Pickles and Sarah Harrington, who saw the creature during their company's team building exercise? How is this all tied to a fundraising effort they were in the midst of conducting and desired to obtain publicity for? I'm not saying they are not to be taken seriously, but UK investigators should do some background checks."

Coleman notes that previous lake monster photos have many explanations. "Some are unexplained. Some are fakes and hoaxes. Some are garbage bags. Some are otters. Some are humans. Some are other known animals."

With the caveat that "unexplained" does not mean "unexplainable," whatever the images of "monsters" in Windermere and other lakes truly are, they are probably accounted for on this list.