Chapter 8 – Going Ape

In July 1990 Scott flew to Taipei to meet with Marcus Phipps of the Orangutan Foundation. They were trying to fund a rehabilitation center for orangutans that were rescued from the pet trade. Since the passing of the Primate Protection Act, the government had seized several orangutans from private owners. They needed a safe place to keep them until they could be examined and possibly returned to the wild.

Some would never go back, as they were too old and it was unlikely that they could learn the skills they needed to survive in the jungle. Some had contracted diseases from humans that made them a danger to other primates in the wild. They also had to do DNA profiles to discover which subspecies of orangutan they were – from Borneo or from Sumatra, before they could be released.
A committee was formed which included Scott, Marcus and several other veterinarians and Orangutan Foundation volunteers. They tried to find corporate sponsors who would donate money for a facility. It looked like this process would take several years. In the mean time, they needed a place to keep the rescued apes.

When Scott was in Taiwan there were ten orangutans that needed a facility. The orangutan Scott got to know best was a male named Romeo. Romeo was a five-year old orangutan who came to Taiwan with the Brazilian Traveling Circus. The circus was impounded in Taipei and the owner was jailed, so suddenly Romeo had no place to go. Marcus Phipps volunteered to take care of Romeo until they could find a proper facility for him.

He took Romeo home to his apartment on the 8th floor of a high rise in down town Taipei. Going up in the elevator, holding Romeo’s hand, Marcus worried that he really didn’t know how to take care of an orangutan. Romeo seemed unconcerned as he followed Marcus down the hall and into the apartment. Marcus didn’t even know what to feed Romeo. Orangutans are vegetarians in the wild, eating leaves and fruit. Marcus wondered what he had in the apartment that he could possibly offer the ape to eat.

As they entered the apartment Romeo looked curiously around. Suddenly he took off toward the kitchen. Marcus followed him and watched in amazement as Romeo opened the refrigerator, took out a can of coke, popped the top and drank it down. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about what to feed him.
By the time Scott came to visit Romeo, Marcus had other concerns. The orangutan had become fixated with eating soap! He knew this could not possibly be good for the ape, but Scott had seen it in orangutans before. The only thing Scott could come with was that some substance in commercial soap was similar to the waxy leaves that the apes ate in the wild. Eating soap was like a taste of home to them.

The problem with keeping an orangutan in a high rise apartment was that they are very smart and very strong and the apartment will not hold them for long. Marcus had to keep Romeo in a large cage when he was gone to keep him out of trouble. Very quickly Romeo discovered that he could move the cage around the apartment by rocking it back and forth. Often Marcus would return home to find the cage clear across the room and his houseplants picked clean of leaves.

One day while Romeo was working his way around the apartment rocking the cage, he misjudged how hard he was rocking and tipped the cage over. It fell into one of the apartment’s plate glass windows and the huge window was knocked out of its molding. The huge sheet of plate glass fell eight floors to the street below, narrowly missing a pedestrian below. Having a young orangutan in a high-rise apartment was a bit like having a wild party that never ended.

Even people who raised orangutans from babyhood begin to see serious difficulties when their babies became teenagers. By their teens orangutans can be 200 pounds, and like human teenagers, they become very cranky and hard to handle. This is the age when orangutans are often donated to local zoos by their frightened or injured owners. It is unlikely that many orangutans lived out their lives in the homes where they were sold as babies.

Ideally it is best if rescued baby orangutans are returned to the wild. Their dwindling numbers make reintroduction seem an obvious goal. The problem is that, like human children, orangutans need twelve to thirteen years of parental care before they can survive on their own. While they are being raised, they have to be taught to forage for food in the wild and to socialize with other orangutans. At the same time their human caretakers have to be careful not to handle the orangutans too much to avoid human-orangutan bonding which would certainly be a disadvantage when it was time to release them. Rehabilitation centers in Borneo and Sumatra have been set up to house and re-assimilate the rescued apes until they are old enough to be released. Only time will tell if these human-raised orangutans can make a smooth transition back to the jungle when their time comes.

Chapter 7 – For the Love of Dolphins

My brother, Scott, was greatly influenced by James Herriot’s stories about his life as a veterinarian in the bucolic English countryside. Scott saw in Herriott the empathy he felt toward animals and appreciated his self-deprecating humor – which was not unlike Scott’s own. Yet, what really started Scott on his path to vet school was a job at the Miami Seaquarium.

He had spent his childhood, as we all had, in love with Flipper. Everyone wanted a dolphin friend who would lead us on exciting adventures solving puzzling mysteries and helping the police capture bad pirates or mean boaters who dropped empty beer cans into the ocean and didn’t even wear their life preservers.

Scott, more motivated than most (I just drew dolphins in crayon on my bedroom wall), took up scuba diving as soon as he was old enough to become certified. Then he left New York and moved to Florida to start college at the University of Miami. In 1976, Scott saw a job announcement at the Miami Seaquarium. It was a pivotal moment that changed the direction of his life.

Scott applied to be a tank diver – the guy who cleans the huge aquarium tanks while peering nervously over his shoulder at the circling nurse sharks. He also had to feed the tank creatures and many close encounters with manatees, sea turtles and barracudas followed. It was fun, but the best part was that he was finally working in a place where he could be closer to dolphins. An added bonus was that the actual set where Sandy and Bud played with Flipper on the television series was located right on Seaquarium grounds. It was where the Seaquarium trainers worked with the dolphins.

 Scott often went over to the training area and watched the trainers work with the dolphins, seals and killer whales. It was a humbling experience to see these obviously very intelligent animals work with their trainers to create a performance that people from all over the world would come to see.

After a while, he began watching one trainer in particular (almost as much as he watched the dolphins). It wasn’t just that she was a pretty brunette who had an amazing rapport with the dolphins. He’d also heard that she’d trained a blind dolphin. He’s heard that everyone had given up on this dolphin because he couldn’t see the hand signals that the trainers used. Kathy (the pretty trainer) had used a whistle and gentle touches on his body to train him anyway. And despite his blindness, he could soon do almost anything the sighted dolphins could do, including jumps and twirls. Everyone was impressed with her and no wonder – she was smart, pretty and had a way with dolphins.

Scott started to think that he needed to get out of the fish tanks and closer to the dolphins. After several months of tank-diving, a job opened up for a show announcer in the marine mammal arena. With his experience as a disc jockey at the campus radio station in college, Scott enthusiastically applied for the job. He had to do a “test show” before he could get the job. He was nervous and made up some silly things to help himself relax that weren’t in the script. The Seaquarium staff laughed at his antics. He got the job on the spot.

For the next year, Scott wore goofy Hawaiian shirts and narrated the antics of the dolphins, sea lions and killer whales as well as occasionally performing with them as part of some of the shows. It wasn’t quite what he’d pictured when he’d thought about befriending dolphins, but he was still learning about them and the humans who worked with them. It was an exciting and entertaining time.

Then, one day, something bizarre happened. Scott was announcing a show involving a male killer whale named Hugo. In the middle of the show, Hugo knocked the trainer into the water and grabbed him in his giant mouth. Then as everyone watched, he pulled the trainer under water.

The audience thought it was part of the show and applauded wildly. Scott knew something was very wrong. He ran out of the sound booth and down to the edge of the water. The other trainer was standing at the edge of the tank in shock. They watched Hugo surface with the trainer in his mouth. He looked terrified and in pain. Scott and the other trainer grabbed him and tried to keep Hugo from pulling him under again.

The truth was if Hugo wanted to hold onto the trainer, they could not have stopped him, but the whale allowed them to pull him out of his mouth. The trainer escaped with only a few bruises and scrapes, but everyone was deeply shaken – especially Scott and the others who had witnessed the event.

Scott had always thought of the marine mammals as benevolent and friendly. They seemed happy to play and do tricks. The dolphins and seals were rarely purposely aggressive, but this was a killer whale and he had just done something that was more like a predator playing with prey than a trained animal working with a trainer to perform a live show.

The experience gave Scott a new outlook on wild animals and their relationship to humans. His sense about the happy partnership of humans and marine mammals would never be the same. He knew his role had to change. He wanted to be more of an advocate than he could be at the Seaquarium. He decided to leave the Seaquarium and go to vet school.

Scott (and his new wife Kathy) left the Seaquarium together and moved to California. Scott applied to and was accepted into Davis Veterinary School. A new chapter in his life had begun.

Scott had many experiences with wild animals as a veterinarian in the years to come, but he would never forget how his naive childhood love of dolphins had evolved at the Miami Seaquarium.

He didn’t stop loving dolphins, but from that time on his daily life was shared with a pack of large dogs instead of dolphins and that seemed just right to everyone.

Rocky the Rocketman protecting mankind (between naps).

Chapter 6: Let Sleeping Bats… Well… Hang

One bright, blue sky day in early April, I descended into an inky black hole in the Earth and didn’t know if I would make it out alive. It was an old iron mine in upstate New York and I was talked into going into it by Tim Barnett, the head of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.

Tim had invited me to work as an illustrator on a bat education project and thought I should see some real bats. So when he and another Nature Conservancy staffer were to take a writer from Harrowsmith Magazine down to see the bats in their native habitat, he wanted me to accompany them.

I was reluctant to go, as I tend to be a bit claustrophobic, but more importantly I had always heard that it was dangerous to go into old mines. (Anyone from the Lassie generation knows this.) The danger was not just from dramatic cave-ins but also from simply getting lost. There were hundreds of tunnels which branched into an endless web of caverns and causeways with pits and underground rivers. If you get turned around down there, you may never find your way out. In addition, the darkness is complete. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. So you only have as long as your batteries last to get out. When entering a cave, you always bring extra batteries and an additional light source. Always. (And never go into a cave without an experienced guide, period!)

I thought of all this when Tim asked me to come along. I made up what I thought were some very plausible excuses. Yet, Tim Barnett was not someone who took no for an answer, so despite my efforts I found myself on snowshoes hiking through a forest covered in spring snow. I was looking for a big mine opening in the side of a hill, so when Tim stopped and motioned for us to come forward, I was confused. There, down in the snow, was a dark, gaping hole in the ground only six feet wide. A cascade of water poured down across the hole into darkness. I stared at it in fascinated horror (and wondered how fast I could run away in snowshoes).

In the end, I reluctantly removed my snowshoes and donned a headlamp. One by one, we pushed under the waterfall into the mine and stumbled down a steep, rocky slope. At the bottom, we adjusted our packs and turned on our lights. Then we started walking down further into the mine. I was third in line behind the journalist but ahead of Melissa, the conservancy staffer. When we rounded the first corner and the light from the mine opening disappeared, I got a sudden rush of suffocating fear. In the pitch darkness, I felt sure there was no air down there. I started to panic. Melissa, whom I had just met that day, spoke reassuringly from behind me.

“Everyone gets a little panicked at first,” she said. “Just breathe and watch the back of the person in front of you”.

I did what she told me to do, mostly because I was too embarrassed to run shrieking back towards the cave opening. So we made our way down and down and down into the murky blackness. I noted every stitch in the back of the journalist’s jacket until my breathing settled into a rhythmic pattern.

Tim kept up a steady stream of conversation as the journalist asked questions. It was cool in the cave, but not cold, about 55°. In some places the ceiling was very low. I shined my flashlight up so I wouldn’t hit my head and noticed the small dark lumps clinging to the ceiling of the cave just over our heads.

“Bats!” I said, in a little voice.

“Oh yes,” Tim said cheerfully.

He stopped and shined his flashlight above him too. A group of a dozen small bats were huddled together there sleeping.

“Those are Myotis lucifugus, little brown bats,” he said, in his singsong voice. “There are seven species of bats in the Adirondacks. There are actually more bats here now than there were 200 years ago.”

Then he turned and walked on and his voice filtered back to us as we followed.

“There are few natural caves here in the Adirondacks. It was the mines that provided a place for the bats to hibernate all winter. Thanks why there are more bats here now than there were before there was mining.”

As we walked deeper, more and more bats appeared on the roof of the cave. We turned right down a narrow passageway and crossed a small river flowing through the darkness. It was odd to think of rivers flowing underground, but of course that is what you tap into when you dig a well. I suddenly realized that I was seeing something few people had ever seen. Then something brushed across my cheek and I screamed.

“Got a few wakers,” Tim said, his huge smile visible in the dim light.

Wakers smakers, I mumbled, the reverations of my scream still echoing in the depths of the mine.

We stopped at the junction of two tunnels and sat to rest. We drank water and Tim talked about how all species of bats in the Adirondacks are insectivorous. They start to wake about the time the first hatch of moths and mosquitoes occur in spring. They are nocturnal and use echolocation to locate prey in total darkness, so life in the mine came naturally to them. The cool temperatures allowed them to hibernate without using up their meager winter weight stores. The ground was covered with a fine dust of dried bat guano. They would be waking soon and ready to eat. The females who had borne young over the winter would be nursing and especially vulnerable to starvation. Like all mammals they take care of their young until they are independent, but unlike all other species of mammal on earth – they fly.

I took pictures of them clinging to the rock ceiling. Some were sleeping alone and while others were grouped in large huddles like a furry slumber party. Some bobbed and squirmed as they huddled together. It was getting close to waking time and they were restless.

Carefully Tim pulled a bat down and held it in his hand. I was surprised at how small and delicate it was. Its dark, furry body was only two inches long and it had tiny clawed hands and feet that were made for grasping rock. 

It was hard to believe that this was a creature that evoked terror in humans and inspired a whole genre of horror movies. Then the tiny bat bared its razor sharp teeth and hissed at us. That was impressive. Tim set the bat on a rock and it took off and flew into the darkness.

We made our way further down the narrow passage until it opened up into a huge cavern. Our voices echoed off of a domed ceiling that was so high it was above the range of our lights. Bats flew about in the dark. We could hear the whistle of their wings as they passed near.

The journalist set up his tripod and some lights. We looked around and were awed by the sheer vastness of the cavern. We could now see the bats lining the vaulted ceiling in brown fuzzy masses. The journalist took some time-delayed photos to capture the scope of the cavern in the dim light.

Melissa and I were told to stand perfectly still as perspective. We chatted quietly in the blackness while he timed the photos. It was damp and the air was musty. Tim disappeared beyond the lights and was lost in the shadows. I realized that if anything happened to him we would never find our way out of there. Time seemed to creep by while bats wheeled and the camera ticked off enough exposure to make the scene visible for the cover of the magazine.

Then something happened in the hollow darkness that to this day I cannot explain. Melissa, who I knew hardly at all, began to tell me mournfully about how she was worried because she was almost 40 and might never get to have kids in time. I suddenly felt deep regret for having left my kids all day at the sitter so I could hike into an old, abandoned mine. I thought of how devastated they would be if I was lost forever down here. Loneliness and regret seemed to echo around us in the cavern in an almost palpable way.

Then Tim came bounding out of the darkness near us and I jumped.

“All done!” he announced loudly.

As quickly as the gloomy mood came on it seemed to dissipate. I gave myself a mental shake. Then I followed them back, crossing rivers and making turns that I hadn’t remembered making on the way in. I wondered if the sheer volume of bats flying around us in the cavern, all sending out their radar-like echolocation, might have addled our minds a bit.

When we emerged from the mine, the afternoon light on the snow was blinding. Squinting, we strapped on snowshoes and stowed headlamps. I felt elated – buoyed up by fresh air and sunshine and the fact that I had actually survived. Snowshoeing back to the car I had a bounce in my step and had to stop myself from bursting into song.

I drove back to my studio and started illustrating bats flying, hanging upside down, sleeping and stretching their membranous wings. Eventually they would go on posters, flyers and buttons. People would build bat boxes and hang them on their garages to help keep the night insects down. School children would write poems and illustrate posters about bats.

I was so euphoric that I called my brother, Scott, in California and told him about the day. I was so excited that I probably sounded a little nutty.

“Wow,” he said, sounding surprised.

We were not a family of spelunkers, unless you counted some minor chandelier hanging. I felt so brave as I told him about the darkness and the panic and the bats.

“You wore rubber gloves and face masks, of course,” he said.

“What? No. Why would we?” I said, confused. “We were in a bat cave!”

“Exactly,” he said. “And many bats carry rabies.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry,” I said, shaking my head. “No one got bitten or anything.”

“You don’t have to get bitten to get rabies,” he said, in his matter of fact style of giving bad news. “Rabies spores can live in the dried bat guano on the cave floor. You stir them up when you walk around and breathe them in and sometimes you get rabies.”

I stopped breathing for a minute while I took this in, my euphoria turning to dread in an instant.

“Oh don’t worry,” he said laughing. “You probably didn’t get it.”

I started breathing again. It must be a common phenomenon how much younger sisters want to punch older brothers.

“So, just to be clear, you don’t think I’ll die in my sleep tonight then?” I said, a little cranky now.

“Oh noooooo,” he said.

“Okay then,” I said sighing.

“You’ll have at least 40 days before your brain swells up and you die a horrible death.”

Good to know, I said.

Chapter 5: Why You Should Never Flirt with Gorillas

After learning about the gorilla escape, I was kind of jazzed about gorillas. So the next day at the zoo, Scott asked Jennifer, the gorilla keeper, if I could help her feed while he was busy on his veterinary rounds.

We entered the gorilla enclosure through the back door, a heavy metal number that weighed a ton. If a gorilla somehow got out of his “room” he would not get past this door. We walked down a long hall, through another big metal door that ended in a long hallway lined with gorilla bedrooms.

Every night, at the same time, Jennifer opened the bedroom doors and all the gorillas came inside from the outdoor enclosure into their own rooms. Then she locked them in and fed them. In the morning, the pattern was reversed with Jennifer locking them out so she could clean their rooms.

“It’s a bit like room service,” I commented.

“You have no idea,” she said. “And I’m the bellboy, maid and dishwasher.”

“But you love it, right?” I asked.

She laughed, and rolled her eyes a little.

“Now this guy in here trashes his room every night. I have to do a total cleaning in here. Just like my ex-husband.” She laughed again.

Hmmm….I said.

“Let’s get the food,” she said and motioned for me to follow her out to the truck, closing each heavy door behind her.

I don’t know what I thought gorillas ate out of – maybe an over-sized salad bowl? So I was a little startled when she pulled a giant, powder blue laundry basket out of the back of the truck. It was full to the brim with lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables. Gorillas are vegetarians and need to eat a lot to maintain their body weight, but that was more veggies than I bought in a month.

“So between the six of them, they’ll eat all that?” I asked.

Jennifer laughed again.

“This is just for one gorilla,” she said, lugging the basket down to the first bedroom.

“Woah.” I grabbed the next basket in the truck and followed her in.

Once the food was in the bedrooms, Jennifer pulled the latch to open the outside doors. The gorillas came in quickly as if they’d been outside waiting for their tables to be ready.

I stood in the long hallway and could smell them in their bedrooms. Their scent was strong but not at all unpleasant. It was a musky, animal smell, but comforting, like the smell of horses.

I was standing there thinking about this when an ear-splitting, metallic boom shook the enclosure. I screamed and jumped. Had I just experienced my first earthquake?

Jennifer sighed and shook her head like an indulgent mother.

“He’s flirting with you,” she said.

“Wait, that was a gorilla?” It sounded like a sonic boom.

I peered into the bedroom where the sound had come from. A large male silver-back stared back at me. He was about 300 lbs. of bulging primate muscle. He looked at me with the most intense dark eyes.

“He’s staring at me. Is it rude for me to stare back?” I asked.

Jennifer laughed. This was clearly entertaining for her.

Suddenly he leaped away, ran around his room in a frenzy and then landed a crushing blow to the metal wall with his fist. My ears rang.

“Doesn’t that hurt him?” I asked, my hands pressed over my ears.

Jennifer shrugged. “You would think so, but apparently not.”

He did it again and I shrieked with surprise again. There was no getting used to that.

“Oh, he’s got it bad for you,” she said, chuckling.

“Great,” I said feeling my face get hot.

Another crash. I was starting to feel downright embarrassed. I moved away down the hall and helped Jennifer finish her chores.

“Just think of it as the gorilla equivalent of a guy winking at you,” she said.

“Hmmm,” I said, not at all sure that made it any better.

As we were packing up to go, the flirty gorilla started vocalizing. It had a keening quality that reminded me uncomfortably of pleading.

“Wow,” Jennifer said, grinning. “He rarely goes that far.”

I was mortified.

When we left the enclosure, we ran into, Scott, who had finished his rounds and was looking for me.

“So did you learn anything today?” he asked as we walked through the jungle-lined pathway across the zoo. The pea fowl were calling loudly from somewhere on the zoo grounds.

“Yes,” I said. “I am stunningly attractive…”

He looked at me quizzically.

“…to apes.”


Chapter 4: Why You Should Never Pick Up a Baby Bird

One morning, after a violent windstorm, we found a robin’s nest on the ground under the apple tree. There were two dead baby birds still in it and one survivor hopping around, squawking pathetically.

I had always heard that you should never touch a baby bird, even if it’s fallen from the nest, because your scent would discourage the parents from taking it back. But how would the flightless baby get back into the nest without help? The baby bird’s parents flew around in a panic, but they would never be able to rescue this baby or put the demolished nest back together.

So I picked up the bird, who seemed almost full grown, but lacked its full compliment of feathers. I brought him into the house. I set him in a cardboard box and we all proceeded to stare at him.

The family dog, a big black lab, stuck his nose in the box and huffed. The bird, beak up, ready to be fed, showed no fear of the 80-pound canine. I put my own face into the box and talked soothingly to it. It opened its beak and pumped its legs like it was doing deep knee bends. It “cheeped” loudly – the universal language for, “Feed me.”

I drove to the local convenience store and bought a small tub of night crawlers. It said on the side of the tub that they were size “large” for catching big fish. Back in the kitchen I fished a worm out of the brown peat. It wasn’t large – it was huge, fat and eight inches long. I rinsed it under the tap. I looked at the bird, who was only about as long as the worm from beak to tail.
In the mean time, bird was bobbing up and down, mouth open, cheeping like a brass band. So I lifted the worm by one end and dropped it into bird’s mouth. It swallowed vigorously, but could only get about a third of the worm down its throat, the rest dangled pathetically out of its mouth. I swallowed hard.

I pulled the worm out of bird’s mouth and laid it on my cutting board. Quickly before I could think about it, I cut off a one-inch section. The worm writhed and I felt a bit queasy, but I picked up the worm section and dropped it into bird’s mouth. He stopped cheeping and bobbing for an instant, closed his black beady eyes and swallowed. Then the mouth popped opened again and the dance started all over. I cut off another worm section. It still felt odd, but I was on a roll. Bird ate all ten sections I got from that first worm and another eight from the next worm before it stopped the commotion. Then it settled down on the bed of paper towels, fluffed out its feathers and seemed to zone out. I exhaled loudly. The dog, who had been watching the whole process as if expecting to get a worm too, sat down and huffed. I cleaned up the whole mess, put the worms in the fridge and went to get some work done in the next room.

About an hour later the cheeping started again. The dog came in and stood next to me whining. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to make sure I knew bird was hungry again or if he was complaining about the racket.

I sighed, went into the kitchen and looked in the box. Sure enough bird was bobbing with its mouth open and cheeping with gusto. Plus there were now bird droppings all over the paper towels. I put in new clean paper towels, took out the worms and started chopping and feeding. It’s amazing how you lose your squeamish sense so quickly. I realized I could probably do open heart surgery after all.

I fed bird every hour for the entire day until I ran out of worms. Then I went back into town and every last tub of worms they had. When the kids got home from school, I showed them the process and made chopping look really fun in case they wanted to take over. They were happy to hand the worm sections into bird’s mouth, but they refused to do the chopping. Couldn’t blame them there.

They were fascinated by bird’s antics and giggled hysterically when he would stop all action for an instant while savoring the worm, just to start up again like a manic wind up toy. It continued on that way all afternoon and into the evening. At bedtime I closed bird in his box and he seemed to settle down, mostly.

For the next few days we fed bird all day, tried to ignore his peeping at night, and waited for a sign that he was old enough to fly away.

The kids carried him around and gently set him on a wooden bear sculpture we had in the yard when they went off to play. Bird sat contentedly, feathers fluffed until it got hungry at which time the cheeping started.

After a week, I called my brother, Scott.

“How long will this go on?” I asked.

“Until his primary feathers grow in and he can fly away,” he assured me.

Two days and many chopped worms later, bird started flying. It flew all around the yard. It came back and landed on the wooden bear. Then without looking back, it joined a flock of robins on the lawn. We could not tell it apart from the others. We stood in the yard and watched them all hunting worms. I was relieved that our part was over.

A few minutes later, one of the robins flew right at us and landed on my son’s head. It started cheeping. We all looked at each other.

“We have to feed it,” my son begged.

So I cut up more worms and fed bird again. It flew off. Then two hours later it came back for more worms. Then again at sunset. Then again in the morning after it had slept all night out on the front porch perched on the bear’s head.

I called Scott back.

“Stop feeding it,” he said.

We threw away the worm tubs and crossed our arms in determination. Every time we left the house bird flew right at us begging to be fed. My chest hurt, like I was a bad mother.
When we pulled into the driveway after a trip to town, bird flew right over and greeted us with loud hungry cheeps. The boys couldn’t play in the yard without bird landing on their heads and begging them for food. We hid in the house. It was beginning to feel uncomfortably like an Alfred Hitchcock movie at our house.

I called the Scott again.

“Go away for the weekend,” he suggested.

“You know how ridiculous it is that we have to leave town because a robin is stalking us?” my husband pointed out.

We packed our bags and went away to the lake for the weekend. We worried about bird while we were away.

“Will bird think we had abandoned him?” one of my sons asked.

“Will the other birds let him join them?” the other asked.

“Will he forget us?” They wanted to know.

I certainly hoped so.

We came home Sunday night with trepidation. We got out of the car. No flapping wings assaulted us. There were robins out on the lawn quieting hopping around. None of them turned to look at us. There was a definite mix of relief and regret hanging on the air.

That night, after I tucked my two crestfallen boys into bed, I realized why you should never touch a baby bird. It wasn’t to protect the birds from being rejected by their parents. It was to protect the humans from getting emotionally attached.

I called Scott again.

“ I am not cut out for rescuing wildlife,” I said, dejected.

“No? Why?”

“They never call,” I complained.

“Well, there’s one big advantage to raising wildlife, as opposed to children,” he said.

“What?” I asked, hopefully.

“They never write home for money either.”

Chapter 3: The Trouble with Teenagers… Even When They’re Gorillas

Scott and I walked up to the zoo nursery so I could take pictures for my own work. I was right in the middle of illustrating my first children’s book series called, Habitats of the World that was being published by Raintree-Heinemann Press and I needed lots of pictures of animals.

“We’re having trouble with some of the hooved stock,” Scott complained, his brow wrinkled, as I snapped a picture of a two-day old pronghorn antelope, its long legs wrapped around itself awkwardly.

“They keep going into labor prematurely and the young inevitably develop respiratory problems.”

“Is it a lack of surfactant?” I mused.

“Right, exactly,” he said.

We were playing the “practicing medicine without a license” game. It was a game we’d played our whole lives. Being raised in a medical family we had grown up with regular dinner table discussion of medical prognosis. So it often amused us now to discuss someone’s medical problems and come up with our own diagnosis. It wasn’t as farfetched now that Scott was a veterinarian and I had my master’s in anatomy and physiology, but it was still just for our own amusement.

I looked into another stall and peered into the dark eyes of the tiniest deer I’d ever seen. It was about the size of my cat. I stopped short and stared.

“It’s a mouse deer,” Scott said. “Cute, huh?”

It was beyond cute. Long chocolate brown fur, large dark eyes, delicate tiny, tongue. This was the picture in the dictionary, next to adorable.

“Go in with her, we’ll get your picture,” he said.

“Really?” I said, probably squealing like a six year old.

Okay I may have been jumping up and down too. I sat down gently next to this tiny creature in the straw. She sniffed my hand,. Her muzzle was as soft as velvet. The keeper snapped a picture.

“You wanna move in?” Scott asked.

“Yes, please,” I said, with as much dignity as I could muster lying in the straw. “Tell my kids I’ll see them again someday.”

“Okay,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’ll go get your ration of pellets.”

Then his radio crackled. He stopped and pulled it from his belt, his smile fading. A riot of voices poured out.

“Wait,” he yelled into the radio. “I don’t read you.”

He was striding quickly to the door. He stepped out into the open trying for better reception. I could hear someone’s voice raised to a panicked pitch repeating something to him. I left the stall reluctantly and followed him outside.

“What is it?” I asked, following him to the jeep.

“Gorilla’s out,” he said grimly.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose.

“Lemme get my camera!” I said, scrambling back to the door.

“No way,” he was shaking his head. “You stay here.”
“What? No! Please, Scott,” I pleaded, suppressing the urge to do more jumping up and down. I was definitely regressing.

“Sorry,” he said, pulling the tranquilizer gun out of the back of the jeep.
I suddenly could see how worried he was, so I squelched another whining plea. This was stressful for him. Not only was the gorilla at risk but if a zoo patron was injured it would be a disaster. He had to act quickly and decisively.

He looked at me for a brief moment and I nodded. Then he jumped into the jeep and drove off. I sat down on the planter, a cactus sticking me in the back and moped. As Scott might have noted, had he had time to comment, my lower lip stuck out enough for a small plane to land on.

Scott had once told me that if a chimpanzee gets out at the zoo, they immediately close the place down and usher people out. Chimps are the most aggressive of all the great apes. They are the only meat eaters of the group and as Jane Goodall taught us, have their own form of war-like aggression. Were gorillas that dangerous? I had no idea. But this clearly worried Scott.

Later, over dinner, I pressed him for every detail.
There had been a crowd. He had to abandon the zoo jeep and run to the gorilla enclosure.

“It was the enclosure with several sub-adult males in it,” he said.

I gave him a blank look.

“Teenagers,” he sighed.

“Gorilla’s have teenagers?”

“All primates do,” he said. “And they are just as cranky and obnoxious as human teenagers are, except they are unbelievably strong and can pitch you like a football if they feel like it.”

“They climbed up on each other’s shoulders in front of the viewing window and pushed one guy right out. He was sitting up on top of the enclosure, his legs dangling down, looking at all the patrons who were looking up at him. The people were watching him like it was a circus act,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not even sure that they realized he was out.”

“What did he do? Would he hurt people?”

“It’s unlikely,” Scott said, but I could see he wasn’t positive. There had been that gorilla at the D.C. zoo who got out of his enclosure and was startled by some patrons walking by and bit a toddler in a stroller.

“Gorillas aren’t usually aggressive unless they’re frightened.”
He smoothed his mustache down, something he did during contemplation.

“So, how on earth did you get him back in?” I was picturing nets and loud speakers and the little planes circling.

“Ahhh,” Scott sighed and leaned back in his chair. “He saw me running toward him with the tranquilizer gun….” He said slowly.

“Yes, and then?” I said, getting ready to poke him with my straw.

“Well, he saw me. He knows who I am. I’m the mean one who occasionally gives shots and of course he’s experienced the tranquilizer gun before. It’s not like we can get them to roll up their sleeves when they need vaccines.” He sighed. Any dreams he’s had of all the animals at the zoo loving him had vanished the first time he’d had to restrain one for a treatment. “Well… he took one look at the gun and he turned around and jumped back into the enclosure.”

My mouth opened but nothing came out. Then I laughed.

“Just too wild out here for him, I guess,” he said.

Chapter 2: A Life Altering Experience Involving Cows

One might wonder what childhood experiences led to our livelong love of wild places and wild animals. After all, we grew up in suburbia outside of New York City, attended public school and never once went on a family vacation to Yellowstone. The answer is complicated, but it is mostly because of strange experiences like the one that follows.

In the middle of the night something woke me up.

“It’s happening!” my mother’s voice penetrated my groggy brain. “Wake up.”

I got out of bed and pulled on a pair of pants and a sweatshirt over my pajamas. I lumbered downstairs and out the front door into a cool June midnight. My brother Scott was already in the car, which was idling in the driveway. He looked just as bleary-eyed as I was and so I didn’t say anything to him. As groggy and confused as we both were, he probably would have just elbowed me for penetrating his stupor. Part of any loving sibling relationship is random battering.

We dozed off as mom drove through the night. The car jolted to a stop.

“Come on!” she said, getting out.

Scott and I ambled out into the lights of a cow barn. This was Farmingdale Agricultural College, where our mother was going to nursing school. We entered the huge barn and shuffled past cows in their stanchions. Most were bedded down, but a few were standing and turned to stare at us dolefully. The smell of the barn was familiar, as she had taken us here many times. That sweet mixture of cow and manure is actually comforting to me despite occasions like this.

She led us to a stall, which was empty of cows, but had a bed of sweet-smelling hay in it. We sat down on an old blanket in the hay to wait. She moved down the aisle to find the night barn supervisor and Scott and I huddled in the hay watching the cow across the aisle. Because that was why we were there. The cow across the aisle was going to deliver a calf, sometime tonight – if we were lucky.

We had made this pilgrimage many times before, trying to catch a birth. Our mother was obsessed. She wanted us to witness the amazing event ¬– the miracle of life. It would be a beautiful, breathtaking and life-altering moment. We would not rest until we witnessed this fantastic sight. We had come to the barn repeatedly over the last few months trying catch one birth, but all the births seemed to happen in the middle of the night after we had gone. I was beginning to think the cows were doing this on purpose to thwart us. I was already jaded at nine.

Finally mom decided it was time for an all night vigil. We would just stay until it happened. The barn manager agreed to keep us posted. I suspected the poor man would have done anything to get rid of us for good.

So we waited under the bright glare of a naked, fly-specked light bulb for the miraculous event to occur. At about three am things started to happen. We stood up and came to the edge of the stall and peered in expectantly. Finally we would witness the blessed event.

The cow, for her part, looked very unhappy. Her eyes were opened so wide that a rim of white showed all around the glistening brown irises. Then after moaning piteously for what seemed like hours, she pushed out a giant gush of water, followed by a blood and mucous soaked lump that plopped unceremoniously on the hay.

I was horrified beyond words. My stomach turned over and threatened to leap out of my mouth. I thrust my sweaty, little hands over my face and tried not to throw up on Scott, who was staring in wild-eyed horror at the mess.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” mom crowed.

I gaped, swallowing hard and shuddering, as the calf squirmed on the hay. Then the mother cow started to lick the bloody mess off. I ran out of the barn into to the cool morning air and pitched headlong into an adjacent cornfield. Taking big breaths I willed myself not to throw up. I am not sure what I had expected, but it certainly was not that mess.

A few minutes later, Mom came breezing out of the barn calling for me. Scott trudging behind her looking like he’d been inside the alien mother ship and there’d been torture. We both trudged to the car like little zombies.

On the way home our mother droned on about how beautiful it all was and how she wanted to be a midwife and do it every day. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried not to think about what that would mean for us. Would we have to attend births? I pictured us all suited up like miniature Dr. Kildares. I was dizzy and nauseous from lack of sleep. I just wanted to go to bed and forget the whole horrible night.

“We had a great time!” Mom announced as we entered the house. “The kids loved it,” she told our yawning father.

Dad looked at us critically. Scott and I looked at each other in confusion. Had we slept through some vital moment, like when anything good had happened? We stared at our mother in disbelief. How could she be so oblivious to our horror and embarrassment? Ah, if only we’d known then that this was what life with Mom would look like.

“They will never forget this experience,” she beamed.

Finally, reluctantly, we nodded. That much was true. We would never, ever forget what happened that night.

Chapter 1: Life’s a Zoo

Early one morning, my brother Scott and I trudged up the side of Hurricane Mountain in the pouring rain, a daily ritual we had begun years before whenever he came to visit from his home in LA. We talked as we walked (when it wasn’t too steep to breathe) and exchanged stories about weird things that had happened with wildlife (and people) at the zoo, in the jungles of Borneo, in the Canadian wilderness or on a Hollywood movie set. Some were stories about Scott’s adventures as an exotic veterinarian or mine as a naturalist. All were a little quirky.
On our last visit, I began to realize that these experiences were not isolated incidents, but stories that wove the fabric of our lives together. From a childhood steeped in strange outdoor adventures to careers that brought our interests in animals, conservation and the outdoors into focus, our stories told a tale of discovery, wonder and tragedy.
Now that we are older and wiser (don’t smirk), I thought, it might be time to tell our tale. So over the next few months, if you are interested, I will be telling our story. I will start here…

A Temporary Situation
In 1992, I visited Scott when he was working as a veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo. It was hot and muggy as we walked across the compound toward the animal hospital.

“I was just supposed to be a temp at this zoo,” he said.

We strolled past the tamarin cages and the tiny mustached monkeys, strongly resembling little, old men, eyed us. They looked like they had something to say. I stared back, just in case.

“The vet was just taking some time off,” he said, pulling my attention from the many sets of beady eyes following us.

“He was burned out from stress and just needed a couple of weeks off. I had not worked with that many species of exotic animals back then and was just praying that none of them decided to get sick or have a crisis while he was gone…”

It was early morning and the deep green foliage on the pathways was dripping with dew and smelled of peat and that intense sweet, musk of wild plants. I knew by his tone that things had not gone to plan while the permanent vet was away, but things like that happened to Scott. It is what made him so good at what he did.

“So, the first week this very sweet Sumatrin rhino, named Emmy, stopped eating,” he said. He talked quietly, like this half-ton pachyderm was the neighbor’s poodle.

“You know, this particular species of rhino is terribly endangered. Maybe only a couple of hundred of them are left in the whole world, so she’s very precious, to say nothing of priceless…” He tugged on his mustache, a sure sign that what he just said was significant, even though his tone was calm and level. Veterinarians know that animals pick up agitated speech. Scott could tell you a pack of mad wildebeests were about to trample you to death and make it sound reasonable. I could only imagine the stress of dealing with animals that valuable.

“Rhinos have an image of being very dangerous and they have hurt keepers, but it’s mostly accidental. We had a rhino who had panic attacks and once and when she was in a state she inadvertently crushed her keeper.”

“Crushed her?”

“Well, the keeper got hip-checked between the rhino and the cement wall. She crushed her pelvis. It was serious. But the rhino didn’t mean to do it. She didn’t even know she had done it. They are that strong,” he said. “It was her keeper’s fault, really. You should never get in the way of a panicked rhino.”

“Good advice,” I said.

“Emmy’s keeper is scared of her too, but she is not a worry. Such a sweetie pie.”
Now, I like rhinos as much as the next girl, but I had never thought of them as sweet. My earliest memories of rhinos was on Wild Kingdom where Jim, the brave assistant, was tossed in the air like a rag doll by a black rhino, while Marlin Perkins watched from a safe distance.

“So the keeper took me into her pen,” Scott continued. “And he was so nervous that he brought an arm load of carrots to distract her while I examined her. He told me anxiously to hurry because as soon as the carrots were gone we had to get out of the pen.”

“She didn’t seem the least bit agitated or dangerous to me, but he was feeding her carrots as fast as she could take them into her mouth. Rhinos love carrots, so she must have thought she had gone to heaven.

“I examined her, but I was distracted by how nervous the keeper was. I kept expecting her to suddenly bolt or rear. But she just placidly stood there and chewed like crazy. He was stuffing carrots into her mouth at a furious rate and she was chewing as fast as she could, but still more carrots came. He was feeding her so fast they were falling out of her mouth onto the ground. Her eyes were wide with either ecstasy or panic as carrot after carrot was stuffed into her mouth.

“I continued looking her over, as the carrots dropped everywhere around our feet and she chewed furiously. Suddenly the keeper yelled to me, ‘I’m almost out of carrots!’ Then he bolted for the door of the enclosure.”

“I was still doing her vitals. She seems okay though and I was beginning to wonder what on Earth would make her stop eating?”

“Maybe it was the carrot bingeing,” I suggested.

“Then I looked in her water trough,” he went, on ignoring me. “It was full of manure balls. You know rhinos, they are always going in their water troughs.”

I nodded, like I knew all about that nasty rhino habit?

“I asked the keeper to collect a manure ball, so I could check it out. It turned out it was full of worms and parasites…” he said smiling triumphantly.

I tried not to make a disgusted face, thinking of squirming parasites in a manure in her drinking water.

“That was an easy one,” he said. “I treated her for worms and parasites and she was fine. It was such a relief. It could have been a lot worse.”

I let my breath out too. His relief was contagious and I brightened as we made our way past the lemur cage, the ring-tailed lemur peering over to check us out.

I actually didn’t get to see a rhino close up until a few years later, when Scott was working at Animal Kingdom in Orlando. He took us on a special family back-of-the-enclosure-tour and we met a “little” female. I use this term loosely as she weighed about half a ton. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, as Disney has a strict policy about that (and just about everything else), but we could touch her. She lumbered over like a rather large dog and let us scratch her behind her ears. She had wrinkled knees, like her pantyhose were too loose, and her skin was smooth and rather pleasurable to stroke. As we scratched her, her ears twitched with pleasure. She had a huge, rubber ball in her pen which we were told she pushed around for fun. She was getting alarmingly close to cute. I began to wonder how the vets got anything done with all these adorable creatures on their rounds.

“Every day there are things that come up to stump us,” Scott said gravely, as we walked on through the zoo grounds.

“We’re dealing with literally hundreds of different anatomies. I’ve got a stack of veterinary  journals on my desk as tall as Everest.”

“So when the other vet came back he taught you everything you needed to know?” I asked, watching a peafowl with its tail spread in our path – the peacocks roam free at the zoo and perform like mimes for anyone who will watch.

Scott laughed, startling the peafowl, who belted out its eerie call and scrambling for cover.

“He never came back,” Scott said, adjusting his radio on his belt and shaking his head. “And I’ve been here ever since. ”

Whiling Away Winter In the Rainforest

It was 15 below zero this morning. Not that unusual for January in the Adirondack Mountains, but after a month of frigid temperatures and icy conditions, one starts to feel a sense of desperation about the conditions. Thoughts of driving to the Biodome in Montreal to sit in the Amazon Rainforest exhibit have been popping into my head regularly.
Perhaps the answer is to learn about warm, tropical places. Immerse yourself in tropical habitats. Here are a few suggestions for winter tropical science. I hope they warm you up!
Read about the African Rainforest

Color and African Rainforest

Read about the Amazon Rainforest

Color an Amazon Rainforest

Paint an Amazon Rainforest Mural

Make an Amazon Rainforest Diorama

Read about the Asian Rainforest

Color an Asian Rainforest

Also try some cool pictures from Dr. Scott Amsel’s travels with the Orangutan Foundation and other organizations:

Amazon River Dolphin:

Dr. Scott Amsel with baby orangutan:

Baby tiger:

Dr. Amsel and baby tiger:






Beautiful Belize

When we decided to have an adventure in Belize, we didn’t want 4-star hotels, casinos, or swimming pools. We wanted to explore Belize – hike in the rainforest, kayak on jungle rivers and snorkel on the coral reef, but we didn’t have time to stumble around the country ourselves. We needed a guide. I’m not sure how I found UpClose Belize, but they seemed willing to customize a trip that suited us: set up guides, accommodations at the level we wanted (that would feed us local food) and drive us where we needed to go. If I’d realized how lucky I was to discover Kim Chanona, I would have slept better the weeks before the trip.

Day 1 When we landed in Belize it was a blistering 102° and we had been up since 5am. I had an image of melting bonelessly into a puddle on the sidewalk if Kim was not there to meet us. Not only was she waiting for us, but she was all smiles and hospitality with an ice chest full of cold drinks. She spoke with an interesting accent (that she later told me was creole) and as she drove us down country she chatted nonstop which helped since we were still a bit too stunned to hold up our end of a conversation.

We passed through scrubland marked by poverty and bad roads. The air conditioning sputtered and the heat shimmered off the flat landscape and I began to worry that perhaps I had made a terrible mistake. Then suddenly the landscape began to transform. Jungled mountains rose ahead and we crossed aqua blue rivers. Sleeping Giant Mountain appeared in the distance and the lush Belize rainforest closed in around us. After about 90-minutes we arrived at the Yamwits Lodge set in an orange grove with flowering bushes and a view of jungle-covered hills. It was still dreadfully hot though and there was no relief in the lodge (no air-conditioning), so we changed into bathing suits and Kim drove us a couple of miles down the road to a local swimming spot called the Blue Hole. We walked into the rainforest, down many steps and emerged into a kind of public pool paradise. The swimming hole was literally a deep spot in the river about 40 feet across, aqua blue and surrounded by jungle. The water was cold and as our body temperatures fell, our spirits rose. We watched the strange collection of different cultures all collected in this small respite from the oppressive heat. There were Americans, Canadians, Spanish-speaking Belizians, Creoles, and Mayans. We emerged feeling much more human and after a dinner of spiced chicken (the staple in Belize) and rice we collapsed into bed at 7pm (US Mountain time) and slept ten hours.

View of the Yamwits lodge down Royal Palm Lane.

Views off the porches at Yamwits.

Day 2 – During the night the weather broke and we woke to a wonderfully pleasant 80°. Clouds covered the sun (perfect for redheads) and howler monkeys called off in the forest. Swarms of colorful birds were calling and flying everywhere from giant king vultures, vermillion flycatchers and parrots to tiny hummingbirds. After a breakfast of eggs and puffed up fried dough (called fryjacks) at Yamwits Lodge, Kim drove us to the Mayan ruins at Xuantunich (Stone Maiden in Mayan).

At Xuantunich, a tiny Mayan guide (who was about 92 years old) took us around the site and described the history and archeological significance of each structure. He climbed the temple like a mountain goat and had no trouble galloping down the other side where I was obliged to work my way down half sitting not to succumb to the dizzying height and exposure (and still not trusting my bad ankle to save me). The forest there was open and beautiful with towering ceiba trees (pronounced say-ba), bullet trees, poisonwood, gumbo-limbo, coconut and royal palms. We saw a tarantula and more tropical birds while picnicking in a palm-thatched pavilion. The mystery of the Mayans hung heavy around this magical site.

“All this is Mayan…” my husband, Richard, says maniacally.

My son, Dillon, and his girlfriend Stacy (both school principals in NYC) accompanied us on the trip and here stood on the top of the towering temple structure..

An iguana living in a burrow below the temple was out sunning as we went by.

After lunch we shuttled to the Mopan River, near the Guatemalan border, where Henry, our river guide, took us down river on inflatable kayaks. The Mopan River was aqua blue with many small rapids. We passed through a town (Banco de Carmen) with a multitude of urban swimmers with their mobs of kids, scruffy dogs (which were everywhere) and skinny horses grazing along the river. There was admittedly a lot of poverty and random trash littered down the sides of the river in some places, but it couldn’t detract from the rich beauty of the place. Leaving town the river turned wild and for the next three hours we saw herons (green blue and green), kingfishers, parrots, swallows, cormorants, fork-tailed flycatchers (stunning), iguanas perched in trees, proboscis bats roosting on trunks and troops of howler monkeys feeding high above in the lofty ceiba trees (by now my favorite tree of all time). Bromeliads and orchids clung to trees everywhere draping over the river — almond trees, trumpet trees, bullet trees and many, many palms of all kinds. It was really breath-taking.

We left the river after negotiating a bigger rapid called Clarissa Falls where I almost swamped. It was a silly move as I lunged to catch my hat that flew off and smashed my elbow into some sharp, limestone rocks. Kim was waiting for us below the rapids and we swam out into the falls and sat in the bubbles admiring the jungle for a while.

Later we heard from another guide that inner-tubers had been hitting their heads coming over Clarissa Falls (and drowning) and most guides now take the boats out above them. (Better not to know until afterward…)

We eventually got chilled in the falls (amazingly) and changed into dry clothes at a little thatched cafe riverside. On the drive back to Yamwits we stopped in St. Ignatio so I could buy a hammock and Kim bought some cashew wine – a local specialty and some Belizian chocolate, which was delicious. We decided that we ought to try all the different locally made chocolates, just to be fair. Back at Yamwits we tried the wine, which was more like a sweet liquor, but the group preferred the local beer. I, however, was totally addicted to the fresh juice squeezed from limes grown in the Yamwits orchard and sweetened with locally grown cane. Delicious.

Day 3 – Wednesday another guide picked us up and took us to another lodge where we waited for gear and other kayakers. It was more rustic than Yamwits with huts raised on poles and outdoor showers. A group of Canadians were staying there and we chatted while watching for keel-billed toucans and tasting fried plantain.

Finally we were ferried by truck down bumpy roads to the Cave Branch River. We were geared up with life preservers, helmets and head lamps and walked down to the river. Wading through chest deep (cold) water we made for the cave opening – a crack in the limestone into the darkness, where the kayaks were tied up. I had some trepidation, stumbling into my boat in the darkness and waiting for everyone else to get situated. We had three guides – Frances and two Marios – and were grouped with about a dozen Canadians including (unfortunately) about five rowdy teenagers. They were hooting and bumping boats and the commotion pushed my boat into the cave wall where I tried to stay and calm my sense of discomfort. I’d been down countless rivers and made my peace with the total darkness of caves, but in combination with the frenetic motion and noise of the kids echoing in the darkness – I was jittery. Then I felt a steadying hand on my boat. Dillon had paddled up and joined me. He was checking in and somehow his presence pushed back the discomfort I was feeling. I took a deep breath and we we head off into the darkness.

The four of us paddled in the back for the first half getting the feel of the kayaks and the flow of the river. The cave had a low ceiling and many low hanging stalactites, so we had to be watchful and listen to the guides (which was at times hard over all the shrieking). Occasionally I was startled by sudden rapids in the dark and currents dashing us into sharp, limestone walls, but mostly it was just fun and exciting. Every once in a while the jungle burst through into the cave pouring greenery and sunlight onto the river and it was stunning. I loved those moments most. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the paddle through the dark (though I did think it possible that this was where Golem spent 500 years), it was all exciting, but to see the jungle tumbling down the slopes to the river was just beyond description.

We lunched on a rocky beach where the cave opened into rainforest and the jungle hung in close over the water. So beautiful. The kids immediately found a rocky overhang from which to jump into the river screaming. The guides asked them to stop as there were hidden rocks in the river, but they ignored them and their parents just looked on wearily. I turned my back to the potential disaster and admired the forest as we ate lunch figuring that there were probably scavengers in the caves that would appreciate a nice broken teenager (waste not…).

After lunch, we dragged the boats through the forest to another section of cave. This was tricky for me as the boats were heavy on the uphill and came flying down at us on the downhill. Never that quick on my feet, I was nervous about the bad ankle betraying me into a tangled heap on the forest floor and was relieved to once again be on the water. It was wider and more open and easier to negotiate. Dillon and Stacy got in front of the group to lead in the afternoon and were thereafter away from the main body of the group. I tried to join them but passing the mob was almost impossible and when I tired, I swamped the kayak and was almost run down by one of the girls (who was careening out of control behind me). After that we hung back and admired the waterfalls, jungle windows and bats in their little cave niches. The guides tried one last time to get the kids to be silent in a particularly lovely section of cave, but it was not happening (and however tempting, they were not allowed to use their paddles as incentives). Regardless, it could not really detract from the amazing experience.

Afterward Kim picked the four of us up and took us to the Belize Zoological Park (a kind of rehab center for injured local wildlife) where a keeper took us on a night tour. It was in a word – fantastic. We helped feed, touching tapirs, watching (and listening) to howlers display, meeting jaguars close and personal, jaguarundi, margay, puma, ocelots, boas, honey badgers, macaws, harpy eagles, agoutis, and toucans – who seemed very excited to have visitors and sang (in a very frog-like call) passionately to us. Afterward Kim took us to eat dinner at the highest point in the capitol at an open air, thatched-roof restaurant overlooking the small city. We feasted on locally-grown beef, shrimp ceviche and fresh-squeezed lime juice and talked about life in Belize. Kim’s family owned an orange grove next to Yamwits and her brother was studying architecture in college in Guatemala. I want to point out how much we liked Kim. She was so accommodating to our every need and a lot of fun to hang out with when she could join us. (She is also a beautiful blonde with a full back dragon tattoo which kind of matched her feisty personality.) Really fun.


Day 4 – Wednesday we headed for the coast, Kim driving us through small villages in beautiful, jungle mountains with many emergent ceiba trees which I loved so much.

We stopped at Cock’s Comb Wildlife Preserve and a Mayan Guide – Benidicto – hiked us (very easy walk) through the rainforest and identified trees and animal signs. We saw leaf cutter ants everywhere on their tiny missions, giant termite nests and many kahuna palms. Then we walked down to a waterfall where we swam and picnicked. We tried the local organic Mayan chocolate which was delicious and so far our very favorite.
Then we continued on toward the coast passing more orange groves and then banana plantations. Soon we were out on the Placencia Peninsula with water on both sides of us. As we drove down the peninsula, the poverty diminished and there were new expensive condos and then even more upscale Belize tourist digs. Kim told us of an unsuccessful attempt by a vacationing gazillionaire to build a resort, golf course and million-dollar condo development. We drove by the shells of the abandoned, partially-built condos perched on the ocean front looking desolate and sad. (It looked perfect for a post-apocalyptic movie set.) I admit, I was relieved to hear the development failed. Why do people see paradise and want to make it into what they came here to escape?

Kim drove us through tiny Placencia and pointed out her favorite cafes, restaurants, coffee shop, Chinese grocery, and the Seahorse dive shop where we would report for our coral reef snorkeling expeditions. Then she deposited us at a small hotel on the bay side with a lovely open air cafe, appropriately name Paradise. We said our sad goodbye’s to Kim and went to sit out in a thatched hut at the end of the pier to watch the boats bob in blue waters. Paradise indeed.

Day 5 – Richard and I left Dillon and Stacy to explore Placencia and took a boat down the coast to Monkey River, a tiny village at the mouth of the river. Our guide – Alex – motored us up the mangrove-lined river pointing out birds, iguana and crocodiles. The mangroves are pretty fascinating. They are impenetrable by man, but a haven for wildlife, their arching roots housing roosting bats, fish, crabs, crocodiles, nesting birds, lizards, etc. We saw more than 25 species of birds in all – squirrel cuckoo, great kiskidee, tiger heron, groove-billed ani, mangrove swallows, yellow tails (with nests hanging from the branches of a huge ceiba tree), tropical kingbird, white-winged kite, magnificent frigatebirds, brown pelicans, little blue heron, social flycatchers, common black hawks, osprey and vultures. We stopped the boats and wandered back into the jungle, our guide harassing troops of howlers monkeys to get them to howl. That was a bit weird, but I imagined this was a daily event for this troop of monkeys. A highlight was Alex talking a tourist into biting down on a live termite to taste its minty flavor. I declined.
Richard and I waiting on the boat to go down the coast to Monkey River.On the way back we stopped the boat out in the bay when Alex saw other boats watching the water. We sat and watched a family of manatees rise to breathe as they swam through. Though I was thrilled to see them, I couldn’t help feeling again that we were harassing these animals to catch a glimpse of them. Talk about a conundrum.

Back at the hotel we joined Dillon and Stacy on the veranda with cold drinks and suddenly I realized how sunburnt I was. I had never been in the direct sunlight all day so had not thought to put on sunscreen. I can testify that reflected sunlight does burn human skin. Stacy came to the rescue with aloe vera and after much hydrating and sunscreen lathering, I was ready to explore the tiny shops of Placencia. We bought locally made honey, hot sauce, jam and chocolate to bring home. So many resources made into yummy products in this tiny, wonderful country. I was pleased to support them. We ate dinner at Omar’s, another outdoor cafe, the breeze gently cooling us as we ate fish caught that day and cooked in curry and coconut milk. Delicious.

Day 6 – Our snorkeling days had finally arrived and we bumped our way for an hour over choppy water out to Silke Keye – a tiny sand island surrounded by coral reef. Many boats anchored in the narrow bay and we all broke up into little groups to snorkel or dive. Our group of four gathered with a few more and struggled to get comfortable with snorkel and mask. We wore UV protective shirts and Nick, our guide, gave us instruction. It was awkward at first – almost impossible to breathe through the tube and lie face down in the water, but I soon got the hang of it. Though it was never comfortable, it was workable for an hour at a time and we swam out over the reef and saw a myriad of beautiful fish in colors almost cartoonish in their vibrancy. We spotted barracuda, lemon sharks, sea urchins, huge lobsters, a groups of squid and and many, many kinds of coral. Again I felt this sense of harassing a habitat to experience it, though we never touched the coral or removed anything. The coral looked a bit bleached in some places and I hoped this was not what I was seeing. It was a small reef and not swarming with fish, but we did see more than 30 species and all were stunning. In the afternoon we repeated the dive and afterward were unexpectedly chilled despite the warm air and had to change into dry clothes for the boat ride home. Interestingly, my bad ankle seemed to like the swimming as it loosened up the joint with no pesky body weight to put pressure on it. Does this mean I should move to Belize for my health?

A little ways off the island we joined other boats as they expelled snorkelers to swim with a few loggerhead sea turtles feeding in the shallows. I was pleased to see them and the passing sharks and rays from the boat but felt uncomfortable with the mob of people in the water. It just seemed like more harassment to me, but I’m not sure what I expected — everyone, including me, wanted to see these beautiful creatures. One woman, fixated on photographing sharks, accidentally blocked one of the sea turtles from surfacing for air and the turtle bit her. After that I felt a little better. They are not so passive about our annoying presence. If we get too annoying – they bite. Ha. I was more cheerful on the bumpy ride back to Placencia.
Dillon and Stacy on the boat to Silke Keye for a day of snorkeling.

Day 7 – A calmer day, the ride out to Laughing Bird Keye was a little less bumpy. A slightly larger sand island, it was lovely and we did a longer snorkel in the morning. By noon I was sunburned and chilled at the same time (odd combination) and we decided to sit in the shade of a palm tree with my book and look out over the startlingly aqua waters around the island.

We talked at length with a local guide (Leo) about the Belizians fighting the influx of oil exploration. They have failed so far and tankers collect 10,000 barrels a day from 3 sites inland – some on previously protected National Forest (that was converted to allow the exploration). The oil companies have paved some roads and funded some infrastructure, but as of yet Belizians still pay $10 a gallon for gas. The impression we got from Leo (and from Kim earlier in the week) is that Belizians struggle to get together and lobby successfully for what they want, but are getting better at it over time. Tourism is still the most effective way to bring money to the country and an oil spill would really hurt that.We worry for them. It is hard to protect paradise from those who would exploit its resources or just love it to death (tourists like us).

That evening – our last – we ate at the Rumfish – a very stylish open air restaurant owned by ex-pat Americans. The food was good (and more expensive) and we loved sitting up high on the porch over-looking the palms and village homes painted in pastel colors, their sandy paths lined in old conk shells.
Day 8 – We woke early on our last morning and walked the beach. There were interesting buildings – condos of sorts – for sale and we talked of what it would be like to own one as a group to share. But not being hot weather people generally or able to tolerate even a hour in the Belize sun, the idea would never gel. We flew out on a tiny plane up to Belize City for our big flight home. It was cool to see the Peninsula and coast from the air and I was very glad we had opted for a flight instead of a long car ride up the coast.

Belize is a stunning, little country, still mostly untouched by the huge condo and luxury hotel syndrome so prevalent in the Caribbean. Perhaps its small size and rugged roads will help it resist this end for a while longer. We certainly wish them well.
Placencia Peninsula from the air.