Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Wishes to You!

Photo Courtesy of stephend9
I will keep this one short, but sweet... Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ask a Zookeeper: Clever Capuchin Monkeys

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Thanks for tuning in to my third installment of my "Ask a Zookeeper" series! Today's question comes from the lovely Mary Vettel (aka, Zooks), who writes:

"Can Capuchin monkeys see in the dark?
And do they see colors?"

Before we get started, let's chat a little bit about what a Capuchin monkey actually is. Probably best know for their mischievous roles in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Night at the Museum, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Hangover 2, Capuchin monkeys are considered the most intelligent of the New World monkeys. They are often kept as pets (like Ross's "Marcel" on Friends), and they are also the quintessential street performers.

"Where's my peanut?"
Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
In recent years, Capuchin monkeys have become quite popular and successful as service animals, and specially-trained Capuchins are often placed with individuals who are paralyzed or who suffer other severe mobility impairments. (Learn more about service Capuchins at Helping Hands, a non-profit organization that provides Capuchin placements.)

Native to Central and South America, Capuchin monkeys are tree dwellers, and they usually live in large, polygamous family groups of up to 35 individuals, typically led by one alpha male. They are omnivores, and they feed primarily on fruits, nuts, seeds, buds, insects, spiders, birds' eggs, and small vertebrates. They will also eat crabs and shellfish by cracking their shells with stones. (An excellent example of tool use as a measure of intelligence, which we discussed in my literary crow post!)

But getting back to your fabulous question about vision, Mary. What's interesting about Capuchins is that they are diurnal--or most active during the day--just like we are. At night, they sleep wedged between branches in an effort to evade an array of potential predators--including jaguars, cougars, jaguarundis, coyotes, tayras, snakes, crocodiles, and raptors.

Because they typically aren't active at night, nature hasn't blessed Capuchin monkeys with particularly powerful night vision. Most scientists agree that in many respects, Capuchin eyesight is similar to human eyesight. We have about the same ability to distinguish fine details, and our eyes react similarly to the presence of light after long periods of darkness. (Probably less swearing and grumbling from the monkeys, though.)

On to the color vision! Research has recently shown that Capuchin monkeys--just like humans--have a huge range of variation in their color vision.
Normal human vision is considered "trichromatic," which means that our retinas contain three types of color receptors (called cone cells) for conveying color information. (Basically, we can see in colors. Lots of colors.)

Some humans, however, have "dichromatic" vision, which means one of our three basic color mechanisms is absent or not functioning. According to Wikipedia, there are various kinds of color blindness found in humans:
  • Protanopia is a severe form of red-green color-blindness, in which there is impairment in perception of very long wavelengths, such as reds. To these individuals, reds are "perceived" as beige or grey and greens tend to "look" beige or grey like reds. 
Protanopia Test:
Can you see the very vague 37 in this picture?
(Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons)
  • Deuteranopia consists of an impairment in perceiving medium wavelengths, such as greens.
  • Deuteranomaly is a less severe form of deuteranopia. Those with deuteranomaly cannot see reds and greens like those without this condition; however, they can still distinguish them in most cases.
Deuteranopia Test:
Can you see the very vague 49 in this picture?
(Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons)
  • A more rare form of color blindness is tritanopia, where there exists an inability to perceive short wavelengths, such as blues. Sufferers have trouble distinguishing between yellow and blue. They tend to confuse greens and blues, and yellow can "appear" pink.
Tritanopia Test: 
Can you see the very vague 56 in this picture?
(Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons)
Most mammals are dichromatic in some way, but many New World monkeys are a notable exception. Scientists now believe male Capuchins are dichromatic, but up to 60% of female Capuchins may be trichromatic! Their peak sensitivities lie in the blues, greens and yellow-greens--which makes sense, considering where they live--but their color vision may not be all that much different than ours.

"Your tie clearly doesn't match your shirt."
(Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons)
Why, you may ask? According to The Evolution of Color Vision in Primates, "Diurnal primates generally eat fruits and young leaves, and it has been argued that trichromatic color vision is an adaptation for discriminating the most nutritive, colorful items.

"However, in dim light, trichromats have exhibited a slight disadvantage for discriminating fruit from foliage. In many situations, dichromats have a foraging advantage when food is camouflaged or similar in color to the background. Since almost all New World monkeys are known to search for food cooperatively, the entire group can benefit from the advantages of trichromacy and dichromacy."

Boom! So, there you have it. Discriminating, intelligent and cooperative. And pretty darn cute, too.

"With our powers combined..."
(Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons)
Thanks for tuning in to my bi-weekly "Ask a Zookeeper" series, and thanks again to Mary Vettel for such a fantastic--and difficult!--question. (Not gonna lie, I had to call in some help from my primate keeper friends for this one. ;)) Please let me know if you have any questions for a future post, and please join me in two weeks for my next post. Have a wonderful Wednesday!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Deja Vu Blogfest: The Product of Post-Crash Insomnia

 
In honor of the Deja Vu Blogfest (brought to you by DL Hammons, Creepy Query Girl, Nicole Ducleroir and Lydia Kang), I am re-posting a favorite blog post of mine that I think needs to see the light of day one more time.

The purpose of this Blogfest is to prevent great posts from fading away into the ever-expanding blogosphere without one more shout-out. It's also a great time to check out the posts from others that you may have missed. Here's the list of the other participants: The Deja Vu Blogfest.

Without further ado, here's a re-post of one of my favorite posts, "The Product of Post-Crash Insomnia." I originally posted this on March 9, 2011, and it's by far the most meaningful thing I've ever written. I will post it again here in its entirety: 

Al-Can Highway, October 2010, Photo Courtesy of Me

I survived a pretty intense car accident in October 2010, and--like most people, I suppose--I now separate my life into two segments: pre-crash and post-crash. My husband and I were driving through a very remote section of northern British Columbia near the Yukon Territory on our way from Alaska to California, and our car flipped six times before finally coming to rest in a drainage ditch. Although we both survived, we almost lost one of our dogs, and the accident itself was unfortunately just the first of our struggles.

After we finally arrived safely in the Lower 48 (nearly two weeks later), I couldn't sleep for weeks, and I found myself haunted by the ghostly images of what we could have become: a cluster of faded crosses buried and forgotten in waist-high snow. It amazed me to think that we could have simply ceased to exist. All the threads of our lives--our goals, our dreams, our connections and our relationships--could have slammed to a stop, and life would have continued on without us.

There is nothing more humbling than realizing the sun will someday set without you.

At the height of my post-crash insomnia, I realized the only way I could purge my experience was to write it down, and here is the result. (I apologize in advance for the language and the general choppiness; I've tried my best not to embellish, and I've recorded everything as best as I can remember.) By putting it on paper and then putting it out here, I think I'm finally ready to let it go...

OCTOBER 23, 2010

The hard left swerve of the first fishtail.

The paralyzed feeling of helplessness as I bolt awake to see our truck sliding into the lane of oncoming traffic.

Ice. Obsidian patches of water. Ribbons of dirty snow swirling across the spruce-lined highway like dim grey snakes or threads of tape ripped from the underbelly of a cassette.

Beautiful. Looks like dancing.

Michael. My Michael, my dirty, adventurous mountain man. The love of my life.

Tensed at the wheel, cobalt eyes wide in panic.

Attempting to correct us, he flings the wheel hard to the left, then hard to the right. His knuckles are clenched, white as paper, stretched too thin around our sun-faded steering wheel.

A ship’s captain in the throes of a thunderstorm.

Relax. Don’t panic. This has happened once before. Everything will be fine.

Fleeting thoughts of a harmless skid back home in Anchorage, that afternoon we drove from the Hillside two winters ago. Watching with a mixture of dread and fascination as our brand-new-to-us Toyota Tacoma did a ballerina’s pirouette and came gracefully to rest at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard. Didn’t leave a scratch.

Flawlessly executed. A judge’s Perfect Ten.

This time will be just like that.

Some sort of talking. Michael’s frustration and fear, my words of encouragement. Trying not to panic in the midst of a runaway train ride.

Don’t freak out. It will just make him freak out more.

A decision.

Angling toward the ditch. Wide and soft-looking, with blades of golden prairie grass folded to the ground by the winter’s first snowfall.

Launching off the asphalt, realizing the road is a few feet higher than the shoulder. Watching the ground rise to meet us and clutching the “oh-shit” bar without even realizing it. Socked feet—the same pair of Wigwams I’ve been wearing since we crossed into British Columbia two days ago—braced against the floor’s grey rubber mats.

This. Is. Happening.

Just noise now. Shattering glass, the screeching of metal upon metal. Plastic and steel and tires tearing into the earth, ripping through the ground like a heaving, angry claw.

The smell of dirt, the chill of ice. Lights and darks, and the realization that we’re flipping now. Over and over and over. Tiny and insignificant, like lottery balls tumbling in a wheel.

My head is suddenly hanging out the window. Resting sideways on the door frame like that time I drank too much Bushmill's the night we got engaged.

But this time I’m mad.

Furious. Mind-bendingly, unflinchingly, unfiltered in my rage.

STOP!

STOP FLIPPING!!

THIS ISN’T FAIR… YOU CAN’T DO THIS… LET ME GET MY HEAD INSIDE THE WINDOW FIRST…

GODDAMNIT, LET ME GET MY HEAD INSIDE THE WINDOW!!!


There’s dirt everywhere. In my mouth, in my eyes. It tastes raw and silty, dark and fertile. It’s good soil.

In the midst of the chaos, I feel something hard against my chest—Michael’s arm?—and I hear a voice yelling. Screaming, actually, and I understand with a start that it’s my voice I’m hearing.

Weird.

Didn’t even realize I was speaking.


One. Two. Three. I lose count of the truck flips after four, realizing with detached amusement that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies aren’t even filtered by car wrecks.

And then suddenly, there’s silence.

Distant, detached, uncompromising silence.

Mother Nature doesn’t really give a shit about you.

We’ve stopped. The truck is right-side-up, and our twisted front bumper is angled downward into a drainage ditch. We’re teeter-tottering in mid-air like kids on a seesaw.

Thank God for this drainage ditch.

Pausing for only an instant, I swirl sideways to take stock of the truck’s passengers.

There’s Michael. Eyes wide. High cheekbones drained of color and face skewed with shock. He’s okay.

Check.

Looking backward into the truck’s extended cab, I lock eyes with Bridger. Our floppy-eared, vulnerable pound dog Bridger. Black bandit’s mask and that beautiful tan face. His eyes are wide, but he’s sitting up, and those lanky sled dog legs are fully intact. He’s okay.

Check.

“Where’s Naia?”

The question tumbles from my mouth as I lock eyes with Michael again. It’s the first words I’ve spoken.

Naia. Our radiant, vivacious, ebony German Shepherd mix. Our heart and our soul, and the glue that keeps us all sane and balanced. The most fearless member of our blossoming young family.

She’s gone.

Michael and I move quickly, nodding in silent understanding as we turn from each other. Our hands and arms move on autopilot, unbuckling seatbelts and flinging open car doors we later won’t remember opening.

I’m outside before I know it, leaping with socked feet into the waiting drainage ditch. Bands of ice shatter beneath my toes, and I shudder as my legs sink into a freezing, muddy creek. Sulfur, vaporous and rotten, surges into my nostrils.

Shit. Now my feet are all wet.

Feeling like I’ve stood in the creek for days, but realizing it has probably only been an instant, I clamber up the embankment on my hands and knees, scuffing my palms and tearing the knees of my favorite pair of jeans. Those way-too-expensive Seven for All Mankind jeans I bought last year at Nordstrom because Michael said they made my butt look cute.

Up the hill, our belongings—suitcases, clothes, gasoline cans and blankets—are scattered through the prairie grass like leaves in the wind.

And then there’s Naia.

Tossed amongst the luggage like a crumpled rag doll, she’s awake, and her golden eyes are trained on us. Her silly, oversized bat ears stand erect like satellite dishes.

Michael has almost reached her—with Bridger bounding like a terrified jackrabbit behind him—so I make a beeline for the highway, waving my arms as a minivan pulls to a stop on the road’s shoulder. My vision seems to be flickering as an older truck slides in behind the minivan, and then Naia is suddenly howling.

She’s running with her tail down—short, compact and panicked, her legs beautiful in their musculature. Her stance is the same one we saw two days ago at that rest area in the Yukon Territory, the one where she chased pebbles and bounded through the black spruce forest with the speed and grace of a panther. Clipped and measured in her movements.

Like a police dog. Like a big girl.

She isn’t even three yet.

She’s bolting into incoming traffic now, and I’m yelling something about not panicking, but Michael already has her, and he’s leading her back across the asphalt. He’s holding her by that beautiful, “girly, but not too girly” purple collar he picked out last year for her birthday.

His injured hands are spilling blood all over it.

There’s a family—a wholesome, bacon-eating Canadian family—and now they’re rushing us inside the minivan. Two wide-eyed daughters stare from the backseat as the mother spreads a bedspread over the middle seat for us.

It’s cute. Pink and cartoonish. Fluffy and decorated with maybe the Powerpuff girls, but I hear myself saying, “I can’t… I don’t want to get blood on your blanket…”

I’m inside now, and Bridger is cowered on my lap. Naia is crumpled in knots on the floor, and Michael is staggering back from the truck. He’s clutching my wallet and the new Canon camera I bought last year so I could “take a picture every single day of 2009.” The base is swinging crazily from its straps, winding in figure-eights like the loose seat of a swing set. The lens cap is missing.

What a funny thing to save.

The van door closes, and now we’re pulling away from the accident, swirling back toward Fort Nelson, where we stayed at that chain hotel and ate Dominos pizza last night. Looked at our map of Canada and studied that battered copy of our Milepost magazine. Tried to figure out our itinerary for this crazy move from Alaska to Colorado.

I watch our truck fade in the distance, its nose face-down in the drainage ditch and its back wheels suspended in mid-air like a child’s Tonka truck. Our camper shell has been ripped off, and our things—all our things, each one lovingly packed in preparation for this trip—are scattered in tangles like the wake of a tornado.

That’s our LIFE out there.

I catch a stray word and repeat it—“Totaled?”—feeling the wheels inside my head laboring to process the notion.

But that’s not possible. That’s our truck. We’re driving to Colorado in that truck.

Michael’s hands are on mine, and I realize I’m covered in blood, too. Dark blood, thick and viscous, spills from wounds on my hands and face.

“You’re bleeding.” His eyes are wide, and they glimmer with sapphire light, bright and clear as a glacial lake. “I’m… so… sorry.” He pauses on each word for emphasis, running his hands up and down my sides to check for injuries. “I’m so, so sorry. Are you okay?”

I don’t know. Am I?

Dragging my fingers through my hair, I pull free tiny bits of glass—beautiful, raw diamonds that shine like stars in the morning haze. My right hand is beginning to swell grotesquely, and my left jaw is aching, but I think I’m remarkably healthy.

“I’m fine. How about you?”

I touch his arms, his face, that sandy beard he insisted on growing special for the trip. His grey Mountain Hardware beanie is smudged with streaks of dirt and blood, but I can still see those two campfire ash stripes he accidentally wiped across its brim during our weekend trip to Seward last spring.

“I’m fine.”

Turning to Bridger, I repeat my inspection, cradling his bony shoulders against my chest and feeling my heart break as I watch his back legs tremble.

Naia is crying, howling out in pain whenever she twists herself on the floor of the minivan. We can’t find any wounds—not even the one I thought I saw on her hamstrings just before she ran into oncoming traffic.

Internal injuries.

The thought strikes me with the weight of a wrecking ball, and I do my best to convince myself I’m mistaken. “She’s probably just sore,” I say, patting Michael’s knee in encouragement after I palpate her spine and the bones of her back legs. “Everything seems to be intact, and she’s letting me touch her everywhere. That’s a good sign.”

But what the hell do I know? I’m not a vet tech.

As we drive, we thank the Canadian couple more times than is reasonably necessary, asking them their names over and over only to feel their answers drifting away moments after they form.

Duane is the dad; I try my hardest and finally commit him to memory, feeling my mind battling the word like an out-of-control kite in the midst of a hurricane. Duane. Duane is beefy and good-natured, with a gap between his front teeth and meaty, flushed sausage fingers. Duane. Remember the name Duane.

Duane and Duane’s wife—who I will later only remember as an ash-blonde blur—were on their way to Fort St. John this morning. They’ve been living in Fort Nelson for the past five years, and Fort St. John is the next town over; it’s a three and a half to four hour drive, and one of Duane’s daughters will be getting her braces tightened there Monday.

“We’ve been driving behind you the whole way south from Fort Nelson, about 40 kilometers,” Duane says. Same speed. Following at a safe distance. These straight roads will get you, he says. Your tires get away from you on that ice, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“Forty kilometers is a long way to backtrack,” Michael says.

“I feel terrible we’ve ruined your day,” I say, watching the windows fog up from the heater and wondering why Duane hasn’t fixed that hairline crack spreading like a spider web across his front windshield.

“You’re all alive,” Duane’s wife says—or was that Duane? “If you weren’t, that would have ruined our day.”

“It would have ruined ours, too,” I say, smiling because I’m being clever.

Get it? Because we would have been dead.
 
Ha! See? I’m still funny, even in the midst of a tragedy.

####

“I’m sorry ma’am, you can’t bring your mutts in here,” the nurse says when we arrive at the Fort Nelson hospital, staggering out of Duane’s minivan as his wife calls the police and says help is on the way.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” I answer, clutching Bridger’s collar and tracking wet, socked footprints across the linoleum as Michael sways in behind me, holding Naia to his chest with wide eyes and bloodied hands.

I bet we look like those people you always hear about. The crazies.

A room suddenly opens for us in an unused portion of the hospital, and we spend the better part of the morning sitting on the floor in stunned silence, giving a police report to an officer named Katie and force-feeding Naia and Bridger dry crackers and lukewarm water.

It will cost $500 per person to be seen by a doctor, so we forego medical exams for now. And Fort Nelson doesn’t have a veterinarian—what the fuck kind of town doesn’t have a veterinarian?—so Michael and I skip deliberation and make the only decision we feel is reasonable.

Give us a rental car, because we need to get Naia to a Fort St. John vet hospital right now.

####

Fast-forward four hours, and Michael and I are in the middle of nowhere on that same God-forsaken two-lane highway in the middle of a snowstorm. I am sitting in the back seat of our rental Kia Sorrento, and Naia is crumpled in a little black heap at my side. She shifts to get comfortable amongst the avalanche of belongings we’ve stacked to the ceiling around her, and this tiny movement sends a stab of pain coursing through her already weak body.

“How’s she doing?” Michael asks from the driver’s seat.

I don’t know how he’s doing this; driving through this snowstorm in the middle of this fog, dodging stray elk and flicking on and off his high-beams during those heart-stopping moments when visibility drops below twenty feet.

It’s pitch-black out here, black as an abyss, a wormhole stretching across the frozen void of space. The steady stream of snow tapping our windshield ironically reminds me of that Windows screen saver that makes you feel like you’re flying through the solar system.

Only now I’m afraid we’re going to spin into another accident, and this time, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep myself together afterward.

It’s a statistical improbability, a mathematical unlikelihood. I probably have a better chance of being attacked by a shark and then being trampled by an elephant. But there’s always that one little anomaly, that one weird guy in Texas who’s been struck by lightning more than 60 times.

Some times these things just happen.

Why not twice in one day?

Naia’s golden eyes are rolling in her skull, and her breathing is raspy. I’m trying to get her to drink water, and I’m doing every trick I can think of to distract her from her panting.
“Got your tongue. Hahaha, look at me, I’m gonna get your tongue if you don’t put it back in your mouth… I’m gonna get your eye googies next. I know you have this gross little habit of always wanting to eat them after I’ve wiped your eyes clean. Don’t you want to pause for a second to eat your eye googies?”

I watch Naia struggle, and I suddenly feel my chest closing. Those golden eyes are so beautiful, and her ridiculous bat ears are perfect.

She’s going to die. Naia is going to die right here sitting on my lap, and there’s nothing I can do to help her.

A swell of anger spills itself into tears, and I clench my eyes shut, fighting the pain and clutching Naia so tightly that I imagine my arms have the power keep her together.

The power to keep her here.

This isn’t fair. This isn’t the way things are supposed to happen.

We’re supposed to move into a new house together. We’re supposed to have babies, and Naia is supposed to be their nanny. She’s supposed to snuffle their ears and sleep beside them every night.

We can’t say goodbye to her yet. We can’t leave her here in this god-forsaken place, broken and extinguished like a snuffed candle. She isn’t even three yet.

This isn’t how this is supposed to happen.


Oil refineries tantalize us for hours, gleaming red and warm in the distance, camouflaging themselves as the town of Fort St. John only to mock us when we approach. Their wicked flame smoke stacks glow like beacons, and we feel like we’re traveling through time as we steer past them into the abyss.

####

We have been on the road for more than five and a half hours by the time we finally reach North Peach Veterinary Clinic, a square metal box illuminated by street lights and outfitted with a squeeze cage in the front for handling large livestock procedures.

My socks are gone now, so I carry Naia barefoot through the snow as Dr. North waves and pulls her glass door open for us. She’s small and athletic, coffee-haired and tan-faced, with kind eyes and rock climber hands, and she can’t believe we’ve come to her vet hospital before seeing a doctor ourselves.

Her office is warm, and the air smells like antiseptic and metal as Michael and I struggle to place Naia on an exam table. She cries out in pain, and her insides heave. A trickle of blood begins dripping in dark rivulets down the base of her tail.

I take one look and suddenly think I’m going to vomit.

Her insides. Her insides have turned into mush, and there’s nothing I can do to help her.

A wave of heat rips through me, and I collapse in an exam chair, tearing off my favorite chocolate vest and that pink American Eagle hoodie I put on this morning because I knew Michael would think I looked pretty.

It’s ripped. I ripped the sleeve of my pretty pink hoodie, and Naia’s going to die here.

The flecked tile floor feels cold against my back as I slump to the ground, and Dr. North brings me a water-filled mug. It’s old and white, stained with coffee and chipped at the handle, but the water tastes good, so I share with Naia.

“It’s good if she wants to drink, right?”

“Maybe, but we don’t want her to drink too much in case we need to sedate her.” Dr. North attempts a smile, explains that she’s going to take her now and do x-rays. We should make ourselves comfortable in her waiting room.

####

Bridger and I pass the time by walking laps through the fluorescent-lit reception area while Michael sits slumped in a corner, eyes watery and hands shaking, dried blood caked around his knuckles.

I decide to make up a new game.

1…. 2… 3… 4…

20… 21… Twenty-two steps to make it from one end of the room to the other. Gotta beat that pace next time.

1… 2… 3… 4…


Six steps to get all the way around the corner.

1… 2… 3… 4…

18… 19… Only twenty steps to get all the way back. Let’s try it again a little faster.


Eukanuba, Science Diet... Dry treats, chewy treats, cute little cans of cat food…

Bridger loves keeping pace with me. This whole thing is his idea, actually. He’s named Bridger Pacey Boop Chickos thanks to his propensity for walking laps around our bedroom at 4:00am, his black and clear toenails click-click-clicking against the lacquered wooden floors when he needs to go to the bathroom.

“He’s a morning person,” we would laugh, grumbling as we unfurled ourselves from our nest of blankets. “The rest of us are night owls, but Bridger Pacey Boop Chickos is a morning person.”

Dr. North returns to the reception area, peering at us with a tentative smile. Her words are blurs, and the x-rays she presents only serve to accentuate how beautiful Naia is, even when she’s just bones on a screen.

“See that?” Dr. North asks. “That’s her bladder. I was afraid it may have ruptured when she started bleeding earlier, but it turns out her kidneys are just badly bruised.” She points to the bones, the wispy, smoke-colored bones all lined up like Lego blocks on the flimsy plastic sheet, and she smiles again, explains that everything looks great, and that Naia probably only has a hairline fracture on her pelvis.

“A hairline fracture,” she repeats, “so she’ll probably be a good candidate for arthritis when she gets older.”

I’m stuck on the word, and a surge of tears suddenly pours down my cheeks as I lean into Michael for support. Dried brown blood coats my fingernails like clay, and I pat Bridger on the head as I repeat it: “Arthritis? Naia is going to get arthritis? Michael, did you hear that? Naia is going to get arthritis because Naia is going to get old. Michael, Naia is going to get old.”

Air whooshes from my lungs, and a swell of pure joy fills my ribcage, warm, golden and inviting as a sunrise.

Memories spring to life and dance like a film roll before me—wrestling matches, hikes in the sunshine, fire lit nights—and then suddenly I’m seeing pictures of things to come. Dancing in the kitchen, Christmas trees, blanket-wrapped babies and a little black, bat-eared nanny. Dog bones, snowflakes, soccer games in the park… Bridger, Naia, Michael and me fighting for space on our always-too-small queen-sized bed.

The four of us. Our blossoming, young, four-member family.

We all get a second chance.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ask a Zookeeper: The Dynamics of a Bear Attack

Brown Bears, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
 Thanks for tuning in for my second installment of my brand-new "Ask a Zookeeper" series!  This post comes from two sources:
  • Lydia Kang, who writes: "How would a bear kill a person? Like, what happens in a mauling? Are we talking torn out throats, or disemboweling... Sorry, I know it's gruesome, but I wanted to know for one of my previous WIPs and I never quite got the answer."
  • Donna Perugini writes: "Some of the questions you get really make me curious. I think you could even open up psychological profiling here along with the zookeeper section. Seriously! Not all bears (black, brown, grizzly, etc.) are the same regarding their aggressiveness."
Excellent questions and ideas, ladies! You're in luck, because I occasionally taught Bear Awareness classes in Alaska, and my husband and I follow the rules VERY closely when we go camping in bear country. (Let the record show, however, that I wasn't always up-to-date on my bear knowledge. Growing up in Florida, I didn't even enter brown bear territory for the first time until a trip to Glacier National Park on my honeymoon. During that trip, I was so petrified that I rarely made it far on our hikes, and a chance encounter with a deer on one nearly sent me into hysterics.)

Upon my arrival in Alaska, I took it upon myself to learn absolutely everything there was to know about bear attacks, thinking it was the only way I'd ever convince myself to enter the woods again. I also became obsessed with my zoo's brown and black bears (Jake, Oreo, Zayk and Mavis), and I watched them as often as I could--memorizing the way they moved, the way they reacted to things and the clues they gave off when they seemed excited or irritated.

Jake the Brown Bear, Photo Courtesy of Me
What impressed me most about the time I spent working around them (and the time I later spent helping raise the orphaned brown bears the zoo would occasionally receive) was the amount of intelligence the bears displayed--especially in regard to problem-solving. It was staggering, but it was also intensely helpful, because intelligent animals tend to act in predictable ways, and this is paramount when dissecting something as complex as a bear attack.

Many people split bear attacks into two categories: black bear attacks or brown bear attacks. (Brown bears and grizzly bears are essentially the same thing; the phrasing differences are mostly semantics.) I think, however, that it's infinitely more helpful to split bear attacks into two different categories: DEFENSIVE attacks or PREDATORY attacks.

Brown Bears, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
DEFENSIVE attacks are the ones we are FAR more likely to encounter in the wild: we've stumbled upon a bear, startled it, blocked its access or threatened its food, gotten between a sow and her cubs, etc. These attacks are typically not as life-threatening as predatory attacks, because the bears will generally stop attacking us as soon as they feel like we are no longer a threat. (Slightly heartening, I suppose, but still not delightful-sounding by any means.)

Defensive attacks by brown bears are far more common than defensive attacks by black bears (though still uncommon in the grand scheme of things), because black bears evolved in habitats with lots of trees. When black bears feel threatened, they typically just scoot up the closest one. Brown bears, on the other hand, evolved in more open areas, so they are more hard-wired to stand their ground.

If you ever encounter a startled bear, remain calm and do not run. Here are some tips from BearInfo.org:
  • Speak in a low monotone voice so the bear can identify you as human.
  • A bear may charge in an attempt to intimidate you – usually stopping well short of contact.
  • If contact is made, or about to be made, drop to the ground and play dead. Protect your back by keeping your pack on. Lie on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you over, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. 
  • (In response to your question, Lydia, when bears attack to kill, they typically swipe at the chest or back and then finish their prey off by biting its neck or head. At that time, they usually go for the entrails. Gross, right?)
  • Remain still and quiet. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels the threat has been removed.
  • Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area.
Black Bear, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
PREDATORY attacks are incredibly rare, but they are exactly what they sound like: attacks where a bear is purposefully seeking us out and intending to kill and eat us. This is the stuff nightmares are made of, so it's obviously important to react differently.

Here are some more tips from BearInfo.org: Any bear that continues to approach, follow, disappear and reappear or displays other stalking behaviors is possibly considering you as prey. Bears that attack you in your tent or confront you aggressively in your campsite or cooking area should also be considered a predatory threat.
  • If the bear does not respond to aggressive actions such as yelling or throwing rocks and sticks, you should be prepared to physically fight back if it attempts to make contact. 
  • Try to be intimidating: look as large as possible. If you are in a group, stand close together to give the illusion of size.
  • If you have bear spray, emit a deterring blast, preferably before the bear is within twenty-five feet. This gives the animal time to divert its advance.
  • If the attack escalates and the bear physically contacts you, fight back with anything that is available to you. You are quite literally fighting for your life.
(Ironically, black bears are responsible for the majority of predatory attacks, not brown bears. This is why popular wisdom suggests only fighting back during black bear attacks and playing dead during brown bear attacks. Who knew?)

Zayk the Black Bear, Photo Courtesy of Me
Lastly, here are some great ways you can AVOID bear attacks all together, courtesy of HikingDude.com:
  • Keep your eyes open for signs of bears. Footprints, droppings, trampled vegetation, clawed up tree trunks, overturned rocks, ripped up rotting logs.
  • Invest in some bear spray before entering bear country. Know how and when to use it.
  • Hike in groups. This gives you people to talk to, making noise is important to warn bears of your approach.
  • Feel the wind. If you are hiking into the wind, your scent will not reach bears ahead of you and the chances of encounter are higher. Be aware and consider making more warning noise.
  • Feel the land. Hiking across open meadows, ridges, or hillsides provides the opportunity for spotting bears at a distance. Hiking in gullies, thick forests, or along streams masks noise and scent and increases possibility of encounters.
  • Dispose of garbage in bear-proof containers, if they are available.
  • Hang all food, garbage, and smellable items in secure bear bags. Locate two trees about 200 feet from your campsite and at least 20 feet apart. Hang your smellables between them at least 12 feet from the ground.
  • Never eat or even bring smellables into your tent. This includes toothpaste, perfume, snacks, gum.. anything with an odor. This also includes the clothes you cooked in - put on different clothes for sleeping.
  • Cook at least 200 feet downwind from your tent. Even better, stop and cook your meal a mile before stopping to camp. Don't even open your food or garbage bag in camp.
  • Clean all dishes immediately. Do your washing 200 feet from camp.
  • Make sure you leave a spotless campsite. Remove all reason for a bear to visit this location looking for food.
Last but not least, don't forget that bears are very reclusive animals. They are hoping to avoid you just as much as you are hoping to avoid them. Just remember to let them know you're in their neighborhood, and behave like a well-mannered guest.

Thanks for tuning in for the second edition of my "Ask a Zookeeper" series, and please let me know if you have any questions for future posts.  My next question is about Capuchin monkeys, and I will be posting it in two weeks!

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Sky is Everywhere = Oh. My. God.

Have you guys read The Sky is Everywhere yet? Lydia Kang was generous enough to give me a copy during her recent blog give-away, and I cannot express to you how much I'm now in love with this book. (Thank you SO much, Lydia!)

Photo Courtesy of Goodreads
Here's the Amazon.com description: 

Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life - and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they're the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can't collide without the whole wide world exploding.

This remarkable debut is perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Francesca Lia Block. Just as much a celebration of love as it is a portrait of loss, Lennie's struggle to sort her own melody out of the noise around her is always honest, often hilarious, and ultimately unforgettable.


Jandy Nelson has a BA from Cornell, an MFA in poetry from Brown, and another MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's a literary agent, a published poet and a devout romantic. The Sky Is Everywhere is her first novel.

Here's the official Book Trailer from Penguin Young Readers:


Nelson's poetic roots are so clear in this novel, because it almost reads like a work of poetry. Her metaphors and similes are so fresh, beautiful and... right... that they nearly fly off the page. The characters are crazy three-dimensional (and bizarre), and the love story--stories, actually--are absolutely stunning. The way she describes a first love is so realistic and all-consuming that it leaves you breathless.

My favorite part of the novel, however, is the adoration and heartbreak Lennie feels toward her deceased big sister, Bailey. It inspired me to jump on the phone and tell MY big sister how much I love and appreciate her. I'm sure you will feel the same way if you have siblings.

In short, FIVE out of FIVE stars from this girl. The Sky is Everywhere not only entertains you; it also inspires you to become a better writer--and sibling.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Fantastic Recent Reads

I've been reading like a madman lately, and I just finished two awesome YA books--the kind of YA books that you devour in just a few days. Have you guys read these yet?

Photo Courtesy of Maureen Johnson Books
Here's The Name of the Star's Amazon.com book description: The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion. For Rory, it's the start of a new life at a London boarding school. But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city, gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific Jack the Ripper events of more than a century ago.

Soon "Rippermania" takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory spotted the man police believe to be the prime suspect. But she is the only one who saw him. Even her roommate, who was walking with her at the time, didn't notice the mysterious man. So why can only Rory see him? And more urgently, why has Rory become his next target? In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humor, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities.

Such a fun and original read; I honestly didn't know what was going to happen until the very last page!

Photo Courtesy of TheDivergentTrilogy.com
Here's Divergent's Amazon.com description: One choice can transform you. Pass initiation. Do not fail! Thrilling urban dystopian fiction debut from an exciting young author. In sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior's world, society is divided into five factions -- Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent) -- each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue, in the attempt to form a "perfect society." At the age of sixteen, teens must choose the faction to which they will devote their lives. On her Choosing Day, Beatrice renames herself Tris, rejects her family's group, and chooses another faction. After surviving a brutal initiation, Tris finds romance with a super-hot boy, but also discovers unrest and growing conflict in their seemingly "perfect society." To survive and save those they love, they must use their strengths to uncover the truths about their identities, their families, and the order of their society itself.

I'm not usually a huge Dystopian fan, but Divergent sucked me in right away. I can't believe I have to wait until May 2012 for the sequel!

Thanks to the wonderful Lydia Kang's recent book giveaway, I am now reading The Sky is Everywhere.  I also just picked up Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and I am already delightfully creeped out by all the weird pictures.

Have you read any good YA novels recently?

P.S.- Oh my gosh, I just found out that the lovely and incredible Jenny Phresh is hosting a huge book giveaway on her blog as we speak. A great place to find some amazing new novels: Book Giveaway Extravaganza!