Zoo Elephants

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Billy
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The two female elephants were held in this tangle of fencing.

 

“Poor thing” a woman standing next to me said about the magnificent bull elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo, and I couldn’t help agreeing. I felt sorry for the two female elephants too, who were enclosed in a smaller area.

When I first saw the new elephant space two or three years ago, it seemed rather pleasant. It was fairly large with a pond in the middle in which a duck swam. The duck got out of the water and waddled up to the bull elephant when he plodded by, and it looked like they had become friends. Later the elephant ate his hay in front of the zoo visitors, using his trunk to tuck some up on his long tusks. He looked happy.

But things must not have worked out. My husband said that the pen now looks like an enclosure from Jurassic World, the one where they kept the most dangerous dinousaur, Indominous Rex, and I agreed. The elephant enclosure contains several huge, ominous-looking metal gates, and tall electrified fences, the rope-like wires held up by round posts about a foot in diameter. These ugly structures zigzag across the area, significantly reducing the size of the space for the elephants, and forcing them to follow maze like paths. One of the functions of this fencing was to protect the vegetation, but why have vegetation if it must be surrounded by electrified fencing?

While the bull elephant paced back and forth, I tried to follow the zig zag path of the fences and gates with my eyes, wondering if he could even get to the pond where his duck friend had once lived. It didn’t look like it. And the crackling sounds from the electric fence were frightening. The elephants have undoubtedly been shocked, and it would be difficult for such large animals to avoid touching the fence. How could they not be stressed out about that?

My family and I eventually made our way around to the other side of the enclosure. By then, the lone elephant with his impressive tusks was standing by a small pond near a manmade waterfall. He nodded his head up and down, up and down, incessantly, while we zoo-goers, watched. None of us knew why he was doing that. My sister thought he looked happy, but it looked to me like he was going mad. According to the website Elephants in Crisis, repetitive head bobbing is caused by stress.

The zoo had posted educational signs around the exhibit, but I was too upset to read them. And that is another consideration. It’s not just the bad effect this exhibit has on the elephants, it’s the very depressing effect it has on many of the onlookers, including some members of my family, and the anonymous visitor I’d overheard. She had the heavy accent of a foreign tourist. I wondered what she’d tell her friends about our zoo when she got home. Elephants are strong, intelligent, social creatures. Who are we to treat them like that?

The facts. The bull elephant is a 32-year-old named Billy who was taken away from his family in Malaysia at the age of four and brought to the Los Angeles Zoo. The two female elephants are Tina and Jewel. The case on their behalf, regarding the right of the taxpayer to challenge a public entity or official that is violating animal cruelty standards in California, has been taken up for review by the Supreme Court no less. Check it out on Facebook @Billytheelephant, and perhaps join the effort to help these magnificent animals. Thanks.

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Seeds

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THEY TRIED TO BURY US, BUT THEY DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE SEEDS. That was my favorite sign at the Women’s March in Los Angeles that took place on January 21, 2017. One reporter stated that the event that packed the streets of downtown from Pershing square to City Hall had a festival like atmosphere, and he was right, people were having fun, but it was more than that. Much more.

Half a million humans came together by train, and subway, cab and car, by air and on foot to support one another. And it wasn’t just women. It was men, kids, babies in strollers and carriers — people of all ages from many races and sexual orientations. They laughed. They cried. They chanted, danced, and sang. One enthusiastic woman of about ninety years, who had made her way from Union Station to City Hall with the aid of a cane, proudly sported a pink pussy hat showing everyone that it’s never too late to take a stand. And the signs people carried. They were abundant, creative, and often funny:

Hate does not make America great.
Women’s rights are human rights.
No you can’t take my rights, I’m still using them.
I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA.

Many signs mocked Trump’s tweets, and there were a multitude of images of him with Putin. Princess Leah was there too encouraging us to join the resistance, and a big cut-out of Hillary joined the march with men carrying signs saying “We’re with her.” Kids’ signs read “We count too,” and moms pinned signs on their babies’ carriers, one mother telling me that she was at the march to protect the future for her infant son.

The unexpectedly high attendance and the imagery on the placards, showed just how upset many people are about the direction this country has taken. One of the presenters on the stage at City Hall chanted “Open hearts and pissed off,” but the “pissed off” part wasn’t resonating. The vibe at the L.A. event, despite the signs, felt entirely open-hearted. People were kind to one another and joyful. One of the most stirring moments was when marchers stood shoulder to shoulder singing “The Star Spangled Banner” in a true spirit of unity. Our national anthem became a song, not about war, but about the ongoing fight for fundamental human rights in a march that was powered by love.

Near the gleaming white Los Angeles City Hall framed by swaying palm trees, a teenage girl held up a sign that read, “Thanks, Trump, for making me an activist.” I’d like to thank him too for being the cause that brought women, their friends, and families to marches all over the world, even in Antarctica! We are reminded that we’re all in this together, whoever we are and wherever we live, because love really does trump hate. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what the seeds that were planted during the marches this winter will bring forth in our world this spring.

The Bluebird of Happiness

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I was walking the dog this morning when I spotted the bluebird pictured above. I mean, how could I miss it? It’s perched on a sign with a big red octagon and an arrow pointing directly at the bird. “Stop. Look at me,” it said. From its high perch, the bird peered down, cocking its head, watching my dog with what appeared to be keen interest. But the dog paid no attention to the bird. She was too busy sniffing a neighbor’s lawn.

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Western Bluebirds live in open parklands all over the West, but the above photo was taken in a densely packed neighborhood. Bluebirds (and parrots) seem to like it there. I see them often.

Besides being beautiful, the bluebird has often been depicted as a harbinger of happiness. In the 1908 play The Bluebird by Maurice Maeterlinck, two children, Mytyl and Tyltyl are sent off in search of the bluebird of happiness. They come back empty handed only to find out that the bluebird has been at home all along. This play was later adapted for film, making the bluebird of happiness a star.

Though I never saw the play or the movies, the bluebird of happiness must have flown into my subconscious because I dreamed about this bird living on an island. Shortly after this, friends invited me to go with them to the Channel Islands, and remembering the dream I thought sure, why not, maybe I’ll find happiness there. Simply communing with nature makes me happy. Right? So we drove the hundred miles to Ventura and boarded the Island Packer. We had barely left the harbor when the boat developed engine problems, and we had to turn back. Alas! the bluebird of happiness had eluded me.

I have long watched myself and everyone else running around in frantic pursuit of this bird in the form of things, activities or circumstances that make them happy. It’s an inalienable right in this country, the pursuit of happiness, and it’s exhausting. Perhaps it’s books, sports, the right career, or the right partner. Maybe it’s riches like winning the lottery or a successful business venture. So let’s say we trot off and get rich. Are we happier? Well yes, temporarily… But then we find a whole new set of circumstances to feel unhappy about.

The documentary Happy examines this question. What exactly is it that makes us happy? One of the happiest men in the film lived in a shanty built of scraps and plastic and made his living as a rickshaw driver. He had family, shanty town friends, a place to sleep, though it was not comfortable, and food. That’s it. Clearly riches don’t have much to do with happiness, at least not in his case.  So, what is it beyond the basics for survival that we need to be happy? What does anyone truly need?

The early twentieth century poet James Oppenheim said “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance, the wise grows it under his feet.” If you’re looking for something to be happy about, you don’t have to look far. A warm bed, clothes, food, your kids, the flower blooming in the garden, the very fact that you’re alive. These are the things the rickshaw driver appreciated.

On the other hand, maybe nothing is truly necessary for happiness. Nothing at all. But is happiness really possible if we’re incarcerated, sick, stuck in a dead end job, living in a refugee camp, or worse?

I believe it was Eckhart Tolle who told the story of a guru who was about to impart his secret to his followers. Everyone in the audience awaited breathlessly. The guru finally opened his mouth and said, “I don’t mind what is.” That’s it. Period. In other words, his state of mind is not dependent on the vicissitudes of outer circumstance, or on his ego’s opinion of things. He knows what most of us have never known or have completely forgotten when we’re caught in the web of misery. Happiness lives within. It’s a choice. Or can be. If we accept what is.

This brings me back to my friend the bluebird. Besides the play and movie, a song about the elusive bluebird of happiness was written in 1934 entitled, not surprisingly, “The Bluebird of Happiness.” The lyrics begin:

The beggar man and the mighty king are only different in name, for they are treated just the same by fate.
Today a smile and tomorrow tears,
We’re never sure what’s in store,
So learn your lesson before too late,
Cause life is sweet, tender, and complete when you find the bluebird of happiness.

This song is about the light and dark of life and the necessity to accept the fact that it can run both ways no matter who you are or what you do. It’s a song both wise and sweet. If you’d like to hear the whole thing, I highly recommend this version sung by the bluebird of happiness himself, the iconic Jimmy Durante. It will make you smile.

In closing, I’d like to thank the bluebird on the sign for pointing the way to this blog post. And for you birders, there is only one species of bluebird on the Channel Islands and that’s the mountain bluebird, a very rare or irregular winter visitor, but you might sight an endemic Santa Cruz Island scrub jay, another beautiful blue bird.

As for the bluebird of happiness. It’s at home, with you.

 

 

Love and Pomegranates

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It was a chilly December night in the Persian section of Los Angeles, just before Yalda, and right after Rumi’s wedding night, a long way until spring. Though we did not yet know it, my friend Amy and I were parked in the wrong place, on the wrong street, going to the wrong restaurant, when we peeked through a window of the Gallery Eshgh. Colorful scarves, dresses, shirts, pottery, wall hangings, fancy boxes, and ties adorned the walls, covered every table, and poked out of cubbies. Most of the items were decorated with a wildly energetic Farsi calligraphy. Intrigued we hurried inside.

We were greeted by the artist-proprietor, Bahman, a bearded man dressed in a calligraphy-embossed black shirt and pants who looked to me like a Persian Merlin, and a beautiful woman I’ll call Azar. They led us through an archway into a smaller back room, also filled to the brim with artistic wares. But what caught my eye were the ceramic pomegranates in a variety of sizes and colors that sat on a table in the very center of the room.

The pomegranate originated in what is now Iran and spread across the Mediterranean region and Northern India, eventually arriving in California via Spanish explorers in 1769. With 200 to 1400 seeds, the deep red fruit symbolizes fertility and abundance. It was the fruit that scouts brought to Moses to demonstrate the fertility of the promised land. Some Jewish scholars even believe that the pomegranate, not the apple, was the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. In Iran pomegranates are one of the foods traditionally consumed on Yalda Night, December 21st, when light defeats darkness and families stay up all night long reciting poetry and telling stories. The dark red pomegranate skin stands for birth or dawn and the bright red seeds the glow of life itself.

Standing around the table covered with ceramic pomegranates, Amy spoke Farsi with Bahman, while Azar and I chatted.

“In Farsi, eshgh means love.” Azar pointed to the calligraphy decorating many of the objects in the room, and I saw that we were literally surrounded by love. “In our culture it’s important to stay positive and spread love and joy every day,” she said.

As we conversed, my mind wandered for a moment from the bright and cheerful love gallery to the recent nuclear troubles with Iran and the other dark days between our two governments. When I hear that kind of news, I sometimes forget that Iran is not the government, rather Iran is its people, wonderful people like Bahman and Azar who were born of a rich and ancient culture, a people to be loved and valued for their contributions to the world in science, literature, philosophy, mathematics, art, and as I had just discovered, love.

Amy picked out a ceramic pomegranate decorated with tiny flowers, Bahman wrapped it for her, and I remembered what it was about pomegranates that had been trying to get my attention. Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds!

Pomegranates play one of their more important roles in the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Anyone who eats anything while in the Underworld must remain there, so after kidnapping Persephone, Hades tricks her into eating a few pomegranate seeds. Zeus negotiated a deal, allowing Persephone to return to her mother for six months every year, but through the fall and winter she stays with Hades bringing light, love, and joy to his dark world. And it is in this dark, quiet Underworld of winter that creativity is quietly nurtured, like a seed that will sprout in the spring — like a pomegranate seed.

Before we left the shop, our mystical guide, Bahman, directed us to the correct street and restaurant. We may have parked in the wrong location, but Gallery Eshgh had turned out to be the right place, and I took a little piece of it with me, a gift bag inscribed with the word Love in Farsi calligraphy. Nested inside was a red ceramic pomegranate, a gift from Amy. For me, this little pomegranate is a reminder of many things, but mostly of the opportunity we humans have for spreading eshgh and joy all around the world. Even to the dark places. Especially there.

Fallen Angels

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My brothers and I love birds. We’ve been birdwatching since we were young. Nothing serious. No life lists. Just being aware of the birds around us and trying to identify the unusual ones we see. Last year we watched a swan doing touch and goes on the bay at Presque Isle on Lake Erie, a loon swimming in a lagoon, wild turkeys running across the road, and Arctic terns cavorting, as well as a bald eagle flyby. And since we are lifelong bird lovers we were heartbroken by the fate of thousands of snow geese that landed in a Superfund site in Montana last week.

Ever since reading The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico many years ago, I’ve been fascinated by these beautiful white waterfowl with their black-tipped pinions. In the story, a snow goose is caught in a storm and ends up on the coast of England where it is cared for by a reclusive artist with a hunchback who lives at a lighthouse.

As described in the book:

The bird was a young one, no more than a year old. She was born in a northern land far, far across the seas, a land belonging to England. Flying to the south to escape the snow and ice and bitter cold, a great storm had seized her and whirled and buffeted her about. It was a truly terrible storm, stronger than her great wings, stronger than anything. For days and nights it held her in its grip and there was nothing she could do but fly before it. When finally it had blown itself out and her sure instincts took her south again, she was over a different land and surrounded by strange birds she had never seen before. At last, exhausted by her ordeal, she had sunk to rest in a friendly green marsh, only to be met by the blast from the hunter’s gun.

A young girl finds the wounded bird and despite her fears carries it to the man who nurses it back to health. Then the story of the man, the girl, and the goose continues, their lives now intertwined.

For those who haven’t heard, on November 28th, about ten thousand migrating snow geese were caught in a snow storm. Though workers tried their best to prevent it, the exhausted geese landed in a pit mine in Butte, Montana, that contained a toxic soup of sulfuric acid and heavy metals. According to an article in the Montana Standard, the 700 acre body of water known as the Berkeley Pit was white with birds. At least three thousand died.

In the Butte-Silver Bow community, townspeople found a few dead and sick birds. Two dead geese were picked up in the Walmart parking lot. For those birds found alive, the veterinary treatment involved flushing them inside and out to remove all toxins. But only one of the geese survived. This lone snow goose, a symbol of all that is beautiful on our planet, is now in a cage in a shelter with dogs and cats as companions. Officials want to release the bird, but odds are stacked against it. Most geese have already flown south, and the goose needs a flock to fly with; hunting season is still on, so it could be shot; and the weather is not favorable. The snow goose would need to fly ahead of or behind a storm and in advance of freezing waters, like the goose in Paul Gallico’s story. But another cold storm is due today. And this goose, like its companions, may not survive.

At the end of The Snow Goose, the bird transforms into a symbol of the main character’s soul before it flies away forever. Perhaps this true story is somehow intertwined with that one, and a piece of the world’s soul has died with these angel white birds, who landed on a lake made toxic by man.

 

 

 

 

The Thin Blue Line

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NASA image of Earth’s atmosphere

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I often could not see the flanks and peaks of the towering San Gabriel Mountains from my house a mile away. I couldn’t hike in those mountains in the summertime because the smog burned my lungs. I learned to take shallow breaths, and I got out of town as often as possible. Eventually, I moved away.

Now, many years later, I’m spending time in the Los Angeles basin again, and with emissions standards in place there is rarely a day I cannot see the mountains, even in the middle of the summer. I can even take a deep breath. In fact, I just did. And I like it this way. But there’s more work to do. Much more.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” That’s what our President-elect once tweeted and it’s scaring the hell out of a lot of us. If it was a joke, as he claims, it wasn’t funny. It makes people think that he doesn’t take this global threat seriously.

Why does climate change have to be a partisan issue anyway? The earth is getting hotter. The evidence is undeniable. Would you leave your dog in the car on a hot day with the windows closed? Of course not! Then why are we doing that to our children?

We’ve trapped them in a greenhouse of carbon dioxide and methane, and punched holes in the ozone layer with bromine and chlorine. We live on what is basically a spherical spaceship barreling around the Milky Way at a speed of 515,000 miles per hour. The only thing protecting us from the sun’s radiation, meteors, and the great void of outer space, is our thin and fragile atmosphere. Not to mention the fact that it is the very air we breathe. Do we really want to miss the opportunity to fix this?

I sincerely hope that President-elect Trump comes to realize the life-giving importance of Earth’s atmosphere and honors the U.S. commitments under The Paris Agreement.

P.S. Kudos to the kids who are suing the federal government on the issue of climate change. As of November 10th, they’ve won the opportunity for a trial.

Blind as a Bat?

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But bats are NOT blind. Besides the ability to echolocate, they have excellent eyesight. Who knew? And they aren’t flying mice. In fact, they are more closely related to primates than rodents. Less than 1 percent of bats carry rabies and of the 1200 species only 3 species are vampire bats. And most importantly, bats do not want to fly into your hair. This I learned at an Audubon talk given by bat advocate Erika Noel from the California Living Museum in Bakersfield where she rehabilitates distressed and injured bats.

Some of the reasons she gave to love, honor, and protect bats rather than fear them are:

They are CUTE,
They are insect eating machines.
They are very CUTE.
They are pollinators.
They are extremely CUTE.
They are a keystone species.

Bats are in the order Chiroptera from the Greek meaning hand and wing. Their forelimbs are wings, and they are the only mammals that can fly. Noel held a furry bat in her gloved hand and fed it beheaded meal worms that the tiny creature ate with relish. And it really was cute (the bat not the mealworms!).

Unfortunately, bats are having lots of problems right now, not the least of which is the deadly fungus (white-nose syndrome) that has killed millions of insect-eating bats at a cost to agriculture of from 4 to 50 billion dollars a year, due to loss of the bats’ insect suppression services. In the northeast U.S. the bat population has declined 80 percent since the emergence of this disease.

So let’s be kind to our furry flying friends. If a bat flies get into the house, no need to swat it with a broom. Noel suggested that you trap it in a room with the window open so it can fly out. Or carefully pick it up with gloved hands (kids should NOT do this) and place the bat in a box. Then keep the box of bats away from your cats. Before you attempt any of this, read the detailed directions for rescuing bats and more bat facts at http://www.batworld.org/.

Thanks for your help! Bats thank you too.

[Header photo from Buzzfeed and Utterlycute.com]