Doing my bit for climate change

earthThe United Nations just released its latest report on climate change and the predictions are pretty grim. According to the headline at we have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe. The article goes on to say:


The authors of the landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on Monday say urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target, which they say is affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.


For years, I have been trying to do my part. I recycle everything my community will accept, I use my own cloth bags at the grocery store, and I drive a fuel efficient car. I wish I could drive a hybrid or an electric car, but for a retiree the prices are prohibitive—at least for now. I realize that my “little bit” is about as effective as trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon, but it makes me feel better, even though I’m not too optimistic about our chances. There are just too many climate deniers out there.


I did learn something in all of the recent reporting, something that has been known for years—just not by me. According to an article in

As the UN also reports, livestock production causes “an even larger contribution” to climate change “than the transportation sector worldwide.” That’s right: Factory farmed animals contribute more to climate change than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined.


Say what?! The article goes on to explain that a whopping 30% of Earth’s landmass goes to meat, dairy, and egg production and it suggests that if we reduced our chicken intake to just one meal a week, ”the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U. S. roads”. In addition to land use issues, the How Stuff Works website reports that belching cows emit massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas which, in terms of its contribution to global warming, is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The average dairy cow expels an amount of methane in a day that might be comparable to a day’s pollution from a single car.


I had no idea that I could help reduce climate change by simply eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods. I’m going to talk to my wife about introducing a Mediterranean diet to our household. We already eat a lot of vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and spices. We hardly ever eat red meat but when we do eat meat, which I intend to do—at least on occasion—we can pay more attention its source and to the welfare of the animal that made the contribution. Consuming grass fed beef and free-whiteoakchixrange chickens from a local farm like White Oak Pastures might be a good start. They are located nearby and their products are available in local grocery stores. It might cost a little more, but it would be considerably less than buying an electric car. As for my milk, I could go with soy or almond milk, but why not support a local, sustainable dairy like Sparkman’s Cream Valley where I can get real happy-cowmilk from “happy”, pasture raised dairy cows. Perhaps one day I can go all the way to a vegan diet, but turning meatless-Wednesdays into an everyday event seems about as likely as my being able to afford that little red Tesla roadster I’ve had my eye on.



Why do we need zoos in the 21st century?

debating europe

A familiar question came across my news feed twice on the same day, but from widely different sources. One was from the discussion board on a website called Debating Europe and the other source was an opinion piece entitled Don’t move the Sacramento Zoo. Close it. Give the animals a break in the Sacramento California newspaper. They came to me as I was considering whether to respond to another negative zoo story out of New York City about a “lonely’ elephant at the Bronx zoo.

The arguments, both in Europe and in North America, are familiar. With today’s technology, we can observe animals in their natural environment with ultra-high definition cameras. With wildlife documentaries giving us unprecedented views of animals in their natural habitats even at night, underwater, and from high flying drones, why do we need zoos? Perhaps the author of the Sacramento newspaper article unknowingly answered his own question. He describes a visit to the zoo with his children when he found himself face to face with a tiger through the glass of its enclosure. When a child darted by:


The tiger suddenly tensed up and assumed an aggressive posture, its muscles coiling in one ominous movement. Its face and eyes were instantly alive. I caught a glimpse of natural instinct – of the tiger’s very nature – rising above the lethargy of captivity. I actually felt scared for a moment until remembering the big glass enclosure was there separating me from the tiger.


His memory is a sad one—of an animal that is caged and not allowed to live-out  its instincts—but the emotional connection from that experience remained long after any other memories. No television show can provide that connection. For those of us who truly love animals, perhaps a better argument than that of closing all zoos is to figure out what zoos should become? I explore this topic in my soon-to-be-published book, In Search of Eden.

Book cover

“Social institutions of all kinds evolve,” said Michael Robinson in his Forward to the book New Worlds, New Animals. “This is true of political, legal, and administrative entities, as well as cultural, educational, and scientific bodies.” Robinson was director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for sixteen years in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Zoos are social institutions that began as and continued to be, what Robinson describes as “places of spectacle and entertainment”. “Research, education, and conservation”, he continued, “are functions which, in the last one hundred years or so, have been grafted onto the recreational rootstock of zoos.” Robinson also correctly noted that “During the age of exploration and European colonization of the world, museums of natural history were established under the same impetus as zoos” – a desire for scientific knowledge but, in the case of zoos, with the added, and unstated, goal of entertainment.

Perhaps Robinson’s greatest contribution to the field was his advocacy for the concept of the BioPark, a place that would “combine elements of existing zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, botanical gardens, arboretums, and ethnological and anthropological museums to create a holistic form of bioexhibitry. Creating the BioPark means ending a series of unnatural separations.”

Another advocate for change in zoos has been David Hancocks, author, zoo director, and vocal critic of the status quo in zoos. Hancocks optimistically asserts that “of all the natural history-based institutions that we have invented – museums of geology, paleontology, zoology, and natural history; botanical gardens; arboretums; aquariums; and wild animal parks – it is zoos, I believe, that have the greatest capacity to adapt, absorb new functions, and amalgamate the content of other institutions.


I don’t pretend to know what the future zoo / aquarium might look like. Entire books have been written about the subject. I do, however, think some zoos may already be previewing some concepts of the future. Philadelphia has developed what it calls Zoo360, which is a campus-wide network of see-through mesh trails that allow animals to roam around and above Zoo grounds. Zoo360 currently consists of a half dozen trail systems that link existing animal habitats, so animals with similar habitat requirements can use one another’s spaces in a time-sharing system and take advantage of more room to roam. At the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, the elephants are provided a similar experience. Elephant Trails, as the name implies, consists of a series of outdoor exercise experiences linked by a path that winds it way through a wooded section of the zoo. The animals have access to four different pools as well as a facility called the Elephant Community Center.

David Hancocks proposes that weuninvent zoos as we know them and create captive situations in which wild animals can enjoy a life that is more comfortable, healthier, safer, and longer than they typically have in the wild”. But no matter what form is taken by future zoos, I firmly believe that if people are going to accept live animals in zoos and aquariums in any form, they must feel animals are well cared for. Welfare is more important than ever and zoos ignore it at their own peril—but that is the subject of another blog.

The View from the Wagon

If you want to gain an appreciation of the conveniences of modern transportation, try driving a team of mules for a few months. I have become a mule aficionado over the past five months after driving a wagon at a local quail hunting plantation, but I have also come to appreciate where the term stubborn as a mule came from. I am grateful that they are not my primary means of transport.

View from the wagon

In their heyday, mules were as common as automobiles are today. As a young boy, my dad plowed his family farm behind a mule. Twenty-mule-teams hauled tons of Borax out of Death Valley, California. Mules dragged cannons across the Western Front in WW I and served as pack animals in the WW II Burma Campaign. On the home front, mules were used to pull wagons and farm implements up until the 1930’s, when they were replaced by tractors and trucks.

Mule barns, like the mule barn in downtown Albany, were combination gas-stations, garages, and hardware stores, dealing in mules, horses, and all types of transportation supplies. In 1911, according to Mary Braswell’s Looking Back column in the January 8th, 2017 Albany Herald, J. J. Battle of Battle Brothers (mules and horses) brought from Tennessee a trainload of mules including two carloads of heavy road mules turpentine mules and others adapted to all classes of heavy work. Dealing in cash, the Battle Brothers stables sold each animal for $25 – 50 less than their competitors in Southwest Georgia.

mules & wagon

As a part-time wagon driver, I figure I spent about forty five days holding the reigns and staring at the fine, muscular behinds of two mules that I affectionately called “Left Mule” and “Right Mule”. Their radar-like ears were usually turned back toward me, listening for a “giddy up” or a “whoa mule”. They pulled me up hills and through mud holes. They went impossibly slow when heading out to work in the mornings, but returned to the barn at the end of the day at a brisk trot—if not a dead-run. They learned to whoa when I said “whoa”, but insisted on backing up when I wanted them to stand still—until I found a stick that was long enough to poke them in the behind. The left side of the wagon-tongue was always slightly ahead of the right side as Left Mule did all of the work while Right Mule nipped at her side, trying to get her to slow down. Right Mule is the one that tried to kick me when I groomed her in the morning.

Now that hunting season is over, my mules will spend the next seven months eating grass and rolling in the dust in their pasture with the other mules and horses. I wonder if they will miss me—miss the oat and apple treats I would slip them in the mornings, miss pulling the wagon across the fields as the dogs ran around and beneath them and the horses grazed in front of them, miss the people laughing and talking while shotguns boomed in the distance. Probably not. But I will miss them as I look forward to next season—although this quote from the pen of William Faulkner does give me pause: A mule will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.

What’s Best for Pittsburgh Zoo’s Elephants?

The Pittsburgh Zoo and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) are apparently locked in a dispute over the standards of care for elephants.

In its August 17th 2015 media release, the Pittsburgh Zoo CEO said the zoo was discontinuing its membership in the AZA after 29 years. Dr. Barbara Baker, President & CEO is quoted as saying, The Pittsburgh Zoo believes very strongly that decisions regarding our Zoo’s animals must be made by the professionals who are knowledgeable about the institution’s programs and staff and specifically trained to handle our animals. In the Pittsburgh tradition, we embrace this core principle and philosophy.

AZA officials countered with the AZA is disappointed that Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has decided their status quo was preferable to complying with the AZA’s more rigorous occupational safety standards related to caring for elephants. They were a 29 year member of AZA, and the AZA and the AZA Accreditation Commission had been hopeful they would elect to comply with the revised occupational safety standards.

I don’t pretend to know all of the details that led up to this dispute, but it does remind me of a time when, as Deputy Director of the Toledo Zoo in the 1990’s, my elephant staff strongly resisted a new trend in the zoo business toward a type of elephant management known as “protected contact”. Instead of entering an elephant enclosure with an elephant hook and giving commands, as elephant handlers had been doing for generations, the protected contact method would have elephants trained from outside the enclosure. It was considered much safer for the handlers and just as effective for the elephants, but my staff preferred being in with their animals, even if there was an element of danger involved. Now, 20 years later, it has become standard operating procedure – except, apparently, in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s claim that decisions regarding their animals must be made by their staff flies in the face of having national standards. It is the same logic that allowed zoos to keep elephants in substandard conditions long after they should have known better and it is the same argument that private animal keepers and roadside zoos use today – “I know what is best for my animals. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.” Doing what is best for animals should not be up to individual interpretation.

AZA accreditation standards have been worked out by multidisciplinary teams of professionals to ensure a safe working environment for staff and excellent quality care for the animals. It is a comprehensive program that considers every aspect of animal care from facilities to nutrition to veterinary care. Some zoos might chafe at having a committee of so-called experts tell them what to do. But when tragedy strikes, every accredited zoo ducks under the AZA umbrella for support. “We meet all national standards”, they will say.

I have to agree with the online editorial by the The Tribune-Review :
The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s split with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) over whether zookeepers should be near elephants without potentially lifesaving barriers raises doubts about whether the zoo really puts safety first.

On the Killing of Lions

A Lover of Nature


When Theodore Roosevelt retired from the presidency in 1909, he was only 50 years old and was looking for adventure. He found it when he set out for British East Africa (modern-day Kenya) to “collect” big game on an expedition for the Smithsonian Institution. Roosevelt and his expedition team arrived in Kenya in April of 1909 and by the time they were finished, nearly a year later, they had killed an astonishing 23,151 specimens, including 160 species of carnivores, ungulates, rodents, insectivores, and bats. The mammals alone numbered 5,013 specimens, including 9 lions, 13 rhinoceros, 20 zebras, 8 warthogs, and 4 hyenas. Each specimen was carefully documented by the Smithsonian naturalists to ensure its research value. It took eight years to catalog all of the material.

Though it is tempting to be appalled at the loss of life, Roosevelt was a lover of nature who dedicated himself to protecting both wildlife and natural resources. In spite of killing all those animals, he is still recognized as one of the world’s great conservationists and is even enshrined on Mt. Rushmore as one of our Nation’s heroes.

Cecil the lion

Fast-forward adentist with lion hundred years and an American dentist is receiving death threats because he killed a single African lion. Unfortunately, this animal had a name and had been featured on a reality television show. It was a “beloved” lion – unless you happen to live in Africa. This reality was presented in vivid detail in a New York Times article entitled In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions by Goodwell Nzou, a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biosciences at Wake Forest University. Nzou grew up in a village in Zimbabwe that was surrounded by wildlife conservation areas.

“No lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname,” Nzou writes. “They are objects of terror.”
Nzou recounts the story of a lion that prowled the area where he grew up, killing livestock and sucking the life out of the village. When it was finally killed, Nzou writes, “no one cared whether its murderer was a local person or a white trophy hunter, whether it was poached or killed legally. We danced and sang about the vanquishing of the fearsome beast”.

An Absurdist Circus

Hundreds of lions are killed legally every year in Africa. It a is big business that supports wildlife conservation. So, why pick on one guy? If he is guilty of violating wildlife laws, let’s give him a fair trial, fine him if he is found guilty, and move on. A public lynching seems like a hypocritical overreaction.
Though lion populations have declined precipitously over the past 50 years, the overall classification of the Lion is only listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), because lion subpopulations actually increased in four southern African countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe). Even the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service stopped short of designating lions as endangered, saying they are not at immediate risk of extinction. Sport hunting, as troubling as it is to some people, may be the least of the lions’ problems. Human populations in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to double by 2050. We may already be seeing the evidence of this human population explosion as boatloads of African refugees pour across the Mediterranean into southern Europe.

So, what are we to make of all this. I love Goodwell Nzou’s observation that:
“The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation … into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus.”

I guess I’ll just leave it at that.

Polar Bears on Ice

This photo of polar bears came across my Facebook feed last week. If any photo could speak to the debate on global climate change, this is it – a mother bear and her cub clinging to a small raft of ice in the middle of a vast, unfrozen Arctic Ocean.polar bears Polar bears are an ice-dependent species that rely on sea ice as a platform to hunt seals and to raise their young. According to experts, the decline of that sea ice habitat due to a changing climate is the primary threat to polar bears. So it follows that the single most important step for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming. If we don’t find a way to effectively reverse the cause of diminishing sea ice, scientists suggest, it is unlikely that polar bears will survive. But effectively addressing the increased atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases that are resulting in Arctic warming will require global action. I hate to be pessimistic, but what are the chances of humanity taking global action on anything?

Polar Bears in Zoos

As a young zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo, I helped open what was at the time, a state-of-the-art polartoronto zoo_polarbear bear exhibit that eliminated something every exhibit before that time had included – heavy, iron bars. The Toronto Zoo’s designers used dry moats, concrete walls, and thick glass windows.The coolest feature was underwater viewing into a large pool of filtered water. Although I had nothing to do with their acquisition, bears did not seem to be in short supply – from the young bear out of the Northwest Territories that had lost two toes to a fox trap, to the huge male we called Pooh from Churchill, Manitoba who had become a nuisance around the town that bordered his habitat on Hudson Bay. I believe we opened our new exhibit with five bears and probably could have found more, if we had the space.

Some twenty years later, I once again found myself in the midst of developing a state-of-the-art polar bear polar bear exhibit at the Toledo Zoo. This time I was the Deputy toledo zoo polar bearDirector of the zoo and it was my team that was charged with finding bears, something that had become more difficult over the years. It also afforded me the opportunity to visit Churchill, Manitoba to see, first-hand, the fragile habitat in which they live. I have had a lot of contact with polar bears over the years. I have fed them, I have cleaned their dens, and I have been chased out of cages on several occasions during veterinary procedures when a bear woke up prematurely. They are wonderfully intelligent and charismatic creatures, but I have a hard time imagining a species that is less likely to adapt to being around humans. Weighing in at a thousand pounds or more, their beady eyes are expressionless; they are utterly fearless, and highly intelligent. I have seen a polar bear wiggle a paw under the caging into a hallway when people were present in a manner that indicated he could reach no farther. Anyone tempted to come toward the paw would have been in serious danger when they discovered he could grab them. When people ask me what is the most dangerous animal I have worked with, my answer is always the polar bear.

Are They Really in Trouble?

But even as reports are warning that climate change threatens polar bear populations across the world, some experts insist they are doing just fine. churchill manitobaMost populations of polar bears appear to be as abundant and as productive as ever, one expert told a Canadian television audience. He suggested that the threats from global warming are based on “climate models, not empirical data” and called the climate change models “an expression of opinion”, a claim that was boosted by a recent headline proclaiming: Arctic sea ice regained a third of its volume in 2013. Other naysayers argue that the polar bear conservation plans are flawed and simply an attempt to drive more funding to government programs – another surprisingly plausible claim. So, who is right? Even if we look at a few hundred years of data, that data still pales in contrast to geologic time – which is measured in millions of years. Maybe polar bears have survived arctic warming (and arctic cooling) in the past. Perhaps they could adapt to life as land-predators, if that land were not already occupied by humans who are building settlements and drilling for oil. Either way, the outlook for polar bears is pretty grim.

This Place is a Zoo

How thinking of your workplace as a zoo might make you a better manager


 Show No Fear

 One of my earliest memories as a zookeeper is a tense moment with an elephant. As a night keeper at a large, well-known safari park in the early 1970’s, the first task on my evening shift was to help walk five African elephants some two hundred yards from their exhibit yard to their night barn at the end of the day. They walked trunk-to-tail through a pasture occupied by zebra, giraffe, and other hoofed stock without incident – except on those occasions when the nine-year-old bull, Bwana, decided to break out of line. His usual tactic was to run a few yards away, turn toward his handlers with his ears fanned out in a threat display, and dare us to approach him. On those evenings when I was the lead handler, it was my job to slowly walk toward him, calming him with the command “Bwana steady”, grab the six thousand pound animal by the tusk, and tell him to “move up”


I was taught to show no fear and be firm and commanding with the elephants. I carried a short stick with a small hook on the end of it, which we used it to push, pull, and guide the animals, not unlike a leash on a dog or a bridle and bit on a horse. When I had earlier called the elephants from the exhibit to “move up” and “come in line”, they all knew I meant business. The lead elephant was a steady, old female named Elke and, after they were all in line with trunks up and I commanded “go on away”, the five animals calmly grabbed tails with trunks as we all ambled toward the barn. When Bwana broke with the routine and decided to test the system,  my hands would tremble and my heart would thump as I considered what I would do if he refused my orders. He never did. It was only later in my career, after numerous reports of elephants killing their handlers, that I came to appreciate just how much danger I was really in.

The Herd as a Team

 As a manager of people, I have also had to reach out to employees countless times to calm them down and bring them back in line. I have used soothing words and, on occasion, stern discipline, but the goal has always been the same – to diffuse the situation, to seek solutions, and to keep the herd functioning as a team.

It might seem an unlikely comparison but, similarities exist between how we manage employees in the workplace and how we keep animals in a zoo. When people utter the phrase “this place is a zoo” referring to their workplace, they are implying chaos, but few places are as organized, structured, and well managed as a zoo. Consider that zoo residents are escape artists with finicky diets, myriad health issues, and, for many, an instinct to kill their caretakers. Then consider that, even after being clawed, gored, kicked, and bitten, their caretakers will do anything it takes to provide the best possible care.

A Captive Workforce

 But why are animals in captivity in the first place? The reasons are many. These days, most of them were born to it. It is all they know and, in most cases, it is all they will ever know. It is fine to talk about returning them to the wild, but what if there is no wild to which they can return? Maybe captivity done right is not such a bad thing.

My dog Chelsea is as captive as any zoo animal. Her cage is my house and the fenced back yard. Yet no one who knows her ever says that poor Chelsea should be set free. In fact, most people think she has it pretty darned good. Why couldn’t the same be said for animals in the right conditions in a zoo? In most cases, putting them back in the wild is an illusion, akin to repatriating refugee children to their drug-ridden slums in Central America.

Many people consider the workplace a form of captivity. Although work may be a matter of choice, most of us are tied to it for our very existence. Some of us may be happy and fulfilled, but many are miserable and can’t afford to just quit and walk away. We are held captive by our need for money on which to live. And there are other similarities. In the zoo, we have three main constituents – the animals, the zoo keepers, and the visitors. In the workplace, it is the workers, the managers, and the customers.

My forthcoming book, This Place is a Zoo: How thinking of your workplace as a zoo might make you a better manager will look at the similarities in some detail. My Monday Blogs will give a preview. Next up – Rewards.