Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Wildlife Trade, Forestry, and the Value of Activism

Photo from

We've been interviewing scientists and environmental activists about the global trade in wildlife, for the new book. We've also been interviewing and reading about the conversion of Southern forests to pine plantations, which are chemically managed monocultures that have only 5% to 10% of the diversity of a native forest, according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. A pine plantation is essentially a factory farm. By the year 2040, estimates a US Forest Service official, 70% of Southern forests will have been clear-cut and replanted as pine plantations. Most of those pines are being used to make paper and fiberboard for construction. One solution to that is use post-consumer recycled paper, use less paper, buy FSC certified wood products and SmartWood certified paper products. But more about that in a later post. Right now, I want to tell you about the wildlife trade, and the power of activism.

According to INTERPOL, the international police agency, the illegal wildlife trade is a $10-billion-a-year business, second only to drugs in the amount of money generated illegally. The animals are sold for food, for laboratory research, for exhibition, and for pets.

Here's what else I discovered last week that shocked me: The United States is the world's biggest consumer of wildlife, both alive and dead. We import four times more primates than any other country, most of which go into biomedical research or pharmaceutical testing. I guess I naively thought that all primates used for medical experiments were bred in captivity. And the World Wildlife Fund says that most of them are. But....we're still importing more than 20,000 a year. An imported wild-caught primate costs only one-third as much as raising a primate from birth in captivity. So some of those raised in labs are sold to foreign labs, and replaced with imports. Obscene! Corporations will just use whatever is cheaper, with no regard for the cost to the planet, or the sustainability of such priorities. I'm tired of seeing that over and over - with farmed animals, with the management of cropfields and forests for timber, with the crops and animals that provide our fabrics, and with unskilled workers, especially agricultural workers and garment workers in the Global South. It's ugly.

The fact that corporations' only true objective is to maximize profits for the shareholder is dangerous to the planet....but we have to remember that those profits come from us, as consumers. We can withhold our money from companies using the most egregious practices. Paul McCartney donates a lot of money to cancer research, in honor of his late wife Linda. But he stipulates that the money cannot go to research that's using animals. Paul has written that money spent on health education, prevention, and screening is more effective in combatting cancer than animal research is. Apparently a lot of the medical research is due to inertia - just using animals because we always have. Some of that research can be done on tissues rather than live animals. We can all start asking more questions of biomedical research companies and drug companies, especially if we're making charitable donations to these companies, or investing in their stocks. They all have web sites with phone numbers to call, and addresses to send letters to. When you get a prescription filled, or buy an OTC drug, ask the pharmacist for the name of the company that made it. Then call them or write them a letter. Ask them for transparency in their testing procedures - tell them you want to know what animals were tested with that drug, and how the animals were housed and treated. Transparency - it's a good word, I keep seeing it in articles about corporate deception. If all of a company's practices are legit and above board, then there's no reason to keep anything secret. When something is secret, then for sure something is going on that the public would object to - if we only knew.

More and more, activist organizations are sending people undercover to work in research labs, in cosmetics testing facilities, in slaughterhouses, in sweatshops. We're seeing footage of what goes on, and we're learning to make demands.

One thing I keep seeing over and over, as I research all these different topics on environmental and labor and humane issues, is that companies often give way as a result of activists' demands. I'm really starting to think that grassroots activism can be just as powerful a tool as trying to get changes the nice and orderly way, such as working with legislators to get new regulations passed. Long and loud protests, with lots of media coverage - companies don't like 'em. Activism has been responsible for a number of reforms in the timber and paper industry, and in the meat industry. Because of PETA's demands, McDonalds changed their policy for the egg factories that provide their eggs. Now the cages can have only 5 hens per cage rather than 7. The egg factory we toured for our recent book Veggie Revolution had 5 hens per cage, and they were too crowded to lift their wings. But with 7 in the cage, they would've been unable to budge at all. It's a small step, yes, but a step in the right direction. And if you're one of the caged hens, it's a significant difference. It's a change that signals a more cooperative corporate attitude - which means more change is coming. In the timber and pulp industry, activist groups such as Forest Ethics and the Dogwood Alliance have been able to get Home Depot to carry 'Forest Stewardship Certified' wood products, and also to stop buying wood from the world's 10 most endangered forests. See The Home Depot web site for details. We (Sara Kate) took part in the Dogwood Alliance demonstrations that got Staples and Office Depot to agree to several forest-conservation measures, including phasing out products from old-growth forests, and carrying post-consumer recycled paper. See the Dogwood Alliance web site for info on those successful office supply campaigns.

From the Dogwood Alliance, a description of their grassroots campaign to change Staples policies:

"On November 12, 2002, Dogwood Alliance joined office supply giant Staples Inc. in a joint press conference to announce the company's public release of landmark environmental paper procurement policy. This announcement marked the end of a two-year campaign led by Dogwood Alliance and our partner ForestEthics and involving dozens of local, regional and national groups and thousands of individuals. Collectively, we generated over 600 demonstrations, 15,000 postcards, thousands of phone calls to the corporate headquarters and regional offices, hundreds of letters from concerned citizens, coverage in more than 10 national media outlets and over 50 local media outlets, introduced a shareholder's resolution, generated a letter to the CEO signed by over 150 religious leaders, and produced a public service announcement with the rock band R.E.M. This campaign victory is testament to the power of citizens joining together to demand corporate environmental accountability."

Now, when we go in Staples, we can buy post-consumer recycled paper. They didn't have it before. Scot Quaranda, one of the leaders of the Dogwood Alliance, says that they're working on new campaigns now with other companies that market forest products.

Being vocal and active can have results, especially when we join together.

But back to the topic of wildlife trade - another big piece of it is the trade in pet birds, especially birds in the parrot family - parakeets, macaws, and some others. They are extremely smart birds. One African gray parrot has learned to count up to 6 objects accurately and to learn language as well as chimps have learned it - combining words in new ways to ask for what he needs or to answer

But parrots are in trouble. According to the 2002 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 94 of the world's parrot species are considered to be threatened with extinction, largely because of habitat loss and excessive capture for trade.

Although the smuggling of wild-caught birds into the US has declined since the Wild Bird Conservation Act was passed in 1992, USF&W officials estimate that as many as 20,000 birds are smuggled in every year, just from Mexico.

What can you do about that? If you buy a pet bird - be sure and double sure that it was bred in captivity. Ask for documentation. Or better yet, call your local Humane Society or Animal Control office and see if there is a sanctuary for homeless pet birds near you. You may be able to adopt one. Sort of like buying vintage clothes, or burning waste veg oil in your diesel tank - you're not creating a market for it, and you're helping an out-of-luck bird.

We can make a difference. Especially when we work together.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Need Advice about Cat Predation

NOTCH the CHIPMUNK, photo by Alan Kneidel

I have to write about our favorite rodent again. This is a picture of our chipmunk matriarch, Notch - named for the notch in her left ear. She lives in our front yard. She chased away two of her almost-grown younguns, letting the third one take ownership of a hole on the edge of her 22 hole underground network. The other two she ran off completely. I watched her chase them repeatedly until they didn't come back. She was tired of nursing them, I think. I could see her nipples shrink back to normal after they left. Notch - what a fiesty little critter! Every afternoon she sits up tall on her haunches, like a meerkat, and surveys her queendom for an hour or two, looking for interlopers. Sometimes one of the cotton rats from the meager "woods" behind the house straggles into the front yard looking for morsels in the grass. If Notch sees the rat, look out! Twice we've watched her light into a rat twice her size, flipping both of them 6 inches into the air. She's a wild woman!

The neighborhood cats are still on the loose. The city gladly brought us out a live trap for the cats. Animal control will deliver and pick up the traps, and take away any cats in the trap. But the cat-owning neighbors saw it being delivered and got very upset, said they'd turn us in for parking on the street if we used it. Parking on the street is not illegal.... But we decided to hold off on the trap until the dust settles. We don't want to alienate the neighbors entirely. Meanwhile they got the collars with bells for the two Siamese cats. They're trying. I haven't told them that, according to the American Bird Conservancy, cats learn to stalk without ringing the bell. I did however deliver the kitties' prey to their front lawn a couple of days after they got the bells, so maybe they'll see for themselves.

What's interesting though is that I've talked to five other neighbors on my street in the last week, and on one street over, who all have major complaints with these same wandering and marauding cats. Three neighbors complained that the cats attack their own pets - both cats and dogs. Two neighbors complained specifically about bird attacks - on a nest of towhees and a nest of mockingbirds. Another neighbor complained that the cats poop in her back yard and her dogs eat it. All of them said they would participate in some sort of group effort to curb the cats.

One neighbor told me that anyone can act as a foster parent to animals from the animal control office, through the Humane Society. For free, all the animals' expenses paid! This is my next door neighbor. Her family gets animals all the time and keep them for a couple of weeks, then take them back. (They have two dogs of their own.) She said that keeping the animals as foster parents makes the animals more adoptable later for some reason. Because they leave notes about what a well-mannered pet it was or something? I'm not sure. Anyway one option for us, in the quest for cat control, is to get a dog for a few weeks. When we had our dog, the cats rarely came in our yard. But we didn't have many yard animals either. Not because the dog caught them, but because her activity kept them from settling here. I like the rodents and the birds. I saw a possum in the yard about a week ago, in broad daylight.

I know that one day, soon, the cats will get Notch. I found a cardinal wing in my next door neighbor's yard today - a cat victim no doubt. My husband the ecologist said, well at least Notch has already reproduced. I just hope I'm not watching from my writing table in front of the bay window when it happens. What should I do? Put out the trap and let the neighbors be mad? And when I catch the cat, what should I do with it? Return it to the neighbors? Or call animal control to come get it? I'll probably only get one chance, because I doubt the cat will go in the trap twice. I will have to tell the neighbors before I set the trap that I'm doing it. So they'll have the option of keeping the cats indoors, and so they can be prepared to pick up kitty and pay whatever it costs to get kitty back. I'll tell them if animal control takes kitty away, and I'll also make sure that the cat will be held there safely for several days awaiting retrieval.

In case you didn't read my last post on this subject, domestic cats in the US kill hundreds of millions of songbirds every year, many species of which are already threatened by habitat loss. Domestic cats also kill a billion small mammals every year, in the US. (US Fish&Wildlife data.) Thirty-five percent of cat owners keep their cats indoors all the time. Two-thirds of vets recommend that cats stay indoors all the time. Indoor cats have a life span of 15-18 years; outdoor cats only 3 years. If you want more stats and sources of official info about cat predation and bird conservation, see the previous post.

And tell me what to do!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Neighbors' House Cat and My Yard Rodents

Eastern Chipmunk photo by Alan Kneidel

This is an update to a post from May about two cats in my neighborhood killing wildlife, and my efforts to stop them. Things are looking up!

I'm writing on a table by the window in my living room - I'm compelled to sit here because I'm obsessed with my neighbor's two Siamese cats. I feel like I have to keep an eye on the front yard every minute if I want to have any surviving wildlife on our property. This morning I came into the living room to open the blinds, and happily spotted a baby chipmunk bounding through the grass. I turned my attention to the blinds for a moment, and back to the chipmunk just in time to see one of the cats pounce on it. I was out the door in three seconds, and the little chipmunk got away, but whether it'll survive, I don't know. Less than 20% of cat prey that "get away" recover from the attack.

We've really been enjoying our chipmunks this spring. We have 22 chipmunk holes in the front yard! All 22 holes apparently lead to the same burrow, occupied by a mother with a notch in her ear, and her three youngsters. We're not usually the type to give names to yard wildlife, but the chipmunk family has been such a daily presence - I've gotten attached to them in spite of myself. They've moved me to make a spectacle of myself on more than one occasion. Three days ago, in my PJs, hair unbrushed, I chased one of the cats out of the yard with a chipmunk in his mouth, the critter still breathing and struggling. I banged on the neighbors' door; Craig came out pleasantly enough to ask what the trouble was. I explained and implored him in a kindly if highly distressed fashion to please keep the cats out of our yard, especially now in springtime, because we have so many baby birds and small mammals in our yard right now. He helped me try to retrieve the captured chipmunk, but as usual, the cat slunk away with it to who knows where.

We've been living across the street from these people for - what - 12 years now? Can that be right? I think it is. We've been cordial neighbors for all that time, if not bosom buddies. The cat issue has only recently come to a head because we had a Jack Russell terrier up until last year that kept the cats out most of the time. Our dog died of cancer last fall. And now the cats are in our yard constantly.

This morning I called the cat-owners and left a message, asking if I could come over and talk about the cats, in a calm state of mind. So, an hour ago, they called me back and said bring it on. I did. I was prepared. I had spent all morning trolling for research to print out about cats and birds. I've known for years that free-roaming cats kill hundreds of millions of songbirds and more than a billion small mammals every year in the United States. But...once again thanks to google....I found tons of new documents about cats destroying wildlife.

Meeting the neighbors, I decided to start my persuasive arguments on the dangers, to a cat, of a life on the prowl. HSUS, the Humane Society, has a great paper about that. Their most compelling point is that free-roaming cats have an average life span of less than three years, compared to 15-18 years for the average indoor-only cat. Outdoor cats fall victim to cars, predators, and disease, among other things. Two-thirds of vets recommend keeping cats indoors at all times. Many shelters now require adopters to agree to keep cats indoors; more and more communities are passing leash laws for cats as well as dogs.

I also printed out for the neighbors a document from the American Bird Conservancy called "Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats." It's a really interesting paper full of cat stats, such as:

35% of cat owners keep their cats indoors all the time
53% of cat owners are concerned about cat predation
64% of survey respondents believe putting bells on cats keeps them from killing (untrue)
70% of respondents believe cats should be regulated to prevent roaming

I gave my neighbor these printouts, then I turned in earnest to the wildlife issue. Songbirds in this country are threatened by the growing human population in lots of different ways. The most serious threat is habitat loss. Second is collision with windows. And third is predation by house cats. A recent Wisconsin study cited by the US Fish & Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats kill more than 39 million birds annually, in Wisconsin alone. Obviously, if it's that high in one state, then it's probably a billion nationwide.

Mention cat predation as a threat to songbirds, and lots of people will say "Oh that's just nature." The major of Charlotte, Pat McCrory, said that when questioned by the media a couple of years ago. Just blew it off as the natural order of things. That really bugs me. Cats are not natural, and they're not native to the US. Domestic cats originated from the European and African Wild Cat, Felis sylvestris. They're an introduced species, like kudzu or starlings. The European colonists brought them to the US, and their numbers are increasing here - from 30 million in 1970 to 60 million in 1990 (according to a University of Maine paper).

Here's what mixes people up. Sure predation is natural. I have no objection to predation by native predators such as Cooper’s Hawks, Great Horned Owls, Bobcats, and Gray Foxes. Populations of native predators are in balance with their prey. If prey numbers decrease, then predator populations decrease too, giving the prey population a chance to rebound. Plus, wild predator populations struggle with other challenges, such as parasites, disease, harsh winters. They’re not always in prime condition, not always efficient at catching prey. They may be able to catch only the sick, the weak, the old, the very young.

House cats operate totally outside of that balance of nature, because they're sustained artificially by their owners. They’re usually well fed, in good health. They’re very efficient predators, able to easily catch small mammals and birds in prime breeding condition. Being well-fed does not diminish cats’ hunting instinct – hunger and hunting are controlled by different parts of the brain. Not only that, but domestic cats prowl in much higher densities than natural predators. There might be a single Great Horned Owl in 10 square miles, but there’s a healthy house cat in every third house.

Turning a house cat loose on a neighborhood of wildlife is like sending a posse armed with assault rifles after a wounded deer. The advantage is that great. I see it every day. I see one of the cats carrying yet another animal out of my yard. I’m sick of it.

So anyway, back to the neighbors. I laid out my arguments in as brief and pleasant a manner as I could, sitting with them on their front steps. "So what is it you want us to do?" asked the wife of the family. “I’m asking you to keep the cats out of our yard,” I said quite plainly, as pleasantly as I could. "We can't do that," she said. She explained that the cats have been outside for ten years, and they like it outside. I knew that, I've been watching them hunt in my yard for ten years. But I had said my thing, it was time to give it a rest. So I thanked them for listening to me and, leaving my articles behind, I walked back across the street, back home.

Two hours later….TWO HOURS LATER....there goes one of their cats down our driveway with a cotton rat. (Cotton rats are native woodland rodents, bearing little resemblance to the introduced Norway rats that invade houses and carry diseases.)

July 22 update: The encounter with the neighbors happened several weeks ago. About a week after the conversation, still seeing kitties day and night, I called Animal Control plus the county Conservation Science office. Both county offices said they would bring me a live cat trap. Animal Control said if I actually caught one of cats, they would come pick it up and take it away, and the neighbors could retrieve it unharmed So I had a trap delivered, for free. It was big enough for a bassett hound - or 4 cats. The cat-owning neighbors saw the trap being delivered. They were not happy about it, and came over to tell us so. But it had its effect. I never actually set the trap. Rather I left it in the yard for a few days. Since I work at a desk that faces out the front window, I also took every opportunity to chase the cats noisily out of the yard, slamming the door on my way out. A couple of weeks after our first conversation, I noticed that the neighbors had put bells on the kitties' collars. I know bells aren't effective, but it was a sign that the neighbors were making an effort. I began to see the kitties less and less. I think they were gradually keeping the kitties inside more. I rarely see the cats now. Maybe twice a week I see them walking down the opposite side of the street. I haven't seen them in my own yard for at least three weeks. In fact, I haven't even seen them on my side of the street for weeks. I also haven't seen any dead birds or wounded mammals in the yard for weeks. Yay!!

I know cats are at the mercy of their instincts, but cat owners are able to make choices. There is no good reason to let house cats roam freely. A 2006 paper by ecologists in Wisconsin lists a number a resources and other papers that will be useful to anyone researching this topic.

I would love to hear from readers any other stories of neighborhood cats on the prowl, with good endings or bad.

"Underground Transit" - A Great Show by Scott Turner Schofield

photo from Scott Turner Schofield's web site

Last night Ken and I went to see "Underground Transit," written and performed by Scott Turner Schofield. It was the most interesting show I've seen in a while - very well done. Turner's one-man show narrates his struggles with gender identity and the happy resolution. I was impressed with the writing and the performance, how easy it was to understand and follow the twists and turns of his personal journey. The show was intensely personal, but not uncomfortably so.

Turner struck me as a well-adjusted and happy individual, at peace with his own process, supported and nurtured by his family and the people he loves. In performing for the last 6 years, he has built up quite a supportive community of followers. In the Q&A session after the performance, he came across as open, funny, articulate, and predisposed to like everyone around him. He's successful, and I understand why. He's not bitter - rather his message seems to be to celebrate the diversity of humanity, including the transgender community. He also wants us to understand that gender identity and sexual orientation issues can be very painful for adolescents, leading to high rates of suicide. Although Scott was student body president at his high school, and "almost home-coming queen," his high school and college years were difficult. The particulars came through clearly in his show.

I came away from the performance feeling glad that the community of gay and transgender youth has such a charismatic messenger. I hope that Scott's success in his one-man shows catapults him into TV, where he can play a transgender character. He would like to do that. I can't imagine a better candidate than Scott, and I think TV is ready for such a consciousness-raising move.

See Scott's web page at

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Solar Home and NC GreenPower

Wouldn't it be great if everybody made their own electricity, so the power companies would stop building nuclear plants and trucking plutonium down the interstates? Duke Power is planning their fourth nuke plant, in Cherokee County SC, just 50 miles from Charlotte. AACK! We're surrounded!

Knowing that makes me appreciate people like Trip Overholt and Jeff and Bronwen Martin all the more. Their two families have gone solar - they've built homes that are mostly powered by photovoltaic panels. You can read about the Martin home in Solar Today magazine. Ken and I got a tour of the Martin home last weekend and it was impressive. I liked the front yard right off. No lawn, just native shrubs and flowers and ground cover. That's very cool. Wildlife benefit much more from native plants that they're adapted to. As soon as you step in the Martin's front door, you can tell the house has a passive solar design - which is totally separate from the photovoltaics. A passive solar home doesn't require any technology, but is heated and cooled passively, by virtue of its orientation, shape, and windows. An ideal passive solar house is a rectangle, with the long axis running north to south. The south wall has lots of big windows to admit warming rays of sunlight during winter. The south wall also has a big overhang to stop the sun from shining directly into the windows in summer. The overhang works because the sun is higher in the sky in summer. A passive solar house also has a thermal mass, something like a concrete floor, to absorb heat during the day and radiate the heat slowly into the air at night. The Martin's home has all these features.

As Jeff explained to me, a homeowner should have a passive solar design before adding photovoltaic panels to generate electricity. PV technology is expensive, and if you want most of your power to come from PV, then you need to do what you can to minimize your power use beforehand. The biggest energy drain in an American home is typically the heating and cooling system. Passive solar cuts way down on the amount of electricity a home might use for heating and cooling. Even just a blower for a heat pump uses a lot of power, and an air conditioner uses a ton. Trip, another PV homeowner, told me, "If you want PV power, that means no AC."

The second biggest user of power in a typical American home is the hot water heater. So a lot of PV homes have solar thermal systems to heat hot water. The Martins had that too. The roof on the southern side of their house had solar thermal panels across the top, and photovoltaic panels across the lower part of the roof. Water travels through channels in the solar thermal panels, which have a special black surface to absorb heat. The hot water travels to a water tank where it's stored until needed. The Martins also have radiant floor heat. Tubes from the hot water tank are imbedded in their concrete or gypcreet floor. When a thermostat triggers the system, hot water moves through the tubes, heating the floors and the rooms. Although, Jeff Martin told me, their passive solar works so well, they never use the thermal floor heat in most parts of the house.

We looked at all the electrical hardware in the Martin's basement for converting the power from the PV panels into AC (alternating current) electricity that the home can use, and the batteries for storing the power for nighttime use. The Martins often produce more power than they need, on very sunny days. They sell their excess power to NC GreenPower, a nonprofit that exists to support sustainable energy sources. We as consumers can get our own power from NC GreenPower by checking the box on our Duke Power bill and paying $4 extra per month. Jeff said NC was the 39th state to give consumers a green power option, so most states already have that. Apparently.

Anyway, it was all very cool. I read this weekend that a single home using conventional power is responsible for 34 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime. You can avoid a big part of that by using photovoltaics for electricity, a solar thermal system to heat water, and a passive solar home design. If you can't afford the PV part, the other two are less expensive and go a long way toward cutting power needs.

Mike Beaver, the guy who installed the Martin's solar thermal panels, the radiant floor tubing and all their hot water apparatus was very helpful to me on the phone, answering my questions. Mike's company is Beaver Brothers, Inc. A helpful resource for finding solar professionals across the country is Find Solar. In North Carolina, NC Solar Center at NC State University and NC Sustainable Energy Asso. are useful sources of information and professional contacts. Even though photovoltaics are expensive now, everyone seems to agree that increasing demand will increase production and eventually decrease costs. That's what happened with the computer chip, which not too long ago was considered too expensive for widespread use. With demand, prices dropped. That's how it works. So thanks to folks like Trip and the Martins for being the frontrunners.