Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Night I got Wesley to be quiet when company was there...

I promised I'd explain how I got Wesley to be quiet when Cait and Richard and I turned up at our (me and Wesley's) apartment in the middle of the night.

As I mentioned in another blog, Wesley had a nanny by this time, who would come over every day if I was away for a weekend, and read to him, spend time talking to him, feed him, and sometimes spend the night there so he'd have company. Yes he was spoiled!

I sometimes spent the night up in L.A. at Cait and Richard's house, hence the nanny.

On one such weekend, we were having a lovely time eating at our favorite Italian restaurant, closing the place down, when I inexplicably started to have a sort of anxiety attack over Wesley's well being. The nanny wasn't available that night so I couldn't just call her and ask her to check on him.

L.A. was a SERIOUS distance from La Costa! But here I was having a visible anxiety attack, horrified that I was acting like this - near tears, worrying about Wesley, unable to snap out of it. AND to make matters worse, I hadn't yet told Cait and Richard about Wesley so I said I was worrying about the hamsters!

Cait and Richard didn't even question it. They got in the car and drove me all the way to La Costa at 2 in the morning! I estimate it's a 2 hour drive one way. We got to my apartment and I sent them off to sleep in the guest bedroom and raced into the room I shared with Wesley. Of course he was fine.

I don't know what came over me that night - why I was so freaked out.

And now I had another issue - here we all were in my fairly small apartment and Wesley was usually VERY vocal, particularly when I got back from being out, so how would I get him to be nearly silent the whole time Cait and Richard were there?

I decided to use my body language to indicate to him that Cait and Richard made me nervous, so they should make him nervous, too. If he felt that there was some concern about having them there, he might go silent like wild animals do when they don't want to be discovered.

So I went into the room and acted nervous about Cait and Richard, looking at the door nervously and doing an owl body language that means, absolutely, that the owl is concerned. Not terrified or threatening the person, but definitely concerned.

I didn't mention this trait in the book but what they do is they flatten their wings very tightly to their body and stand very straight, then twist from side to side rapidly. I don't mean the swaying or rocking from foot to foot that they do when threatening. It's like doing the twist, but with your arms tight to your side and your body rigid. You face your body to the left then to the right and back and forth without moving your feet, very fast.

I did that and Wesley immediately looked worried. Then I hissed at the door - something I had learned from HIM! When he had had a person come in to feed him during the day, he would let me know about it LATER when he was recapping his day to me by looking at the door and hissing under his breath. It told me that someone else had been there, which concerned him, but that they were not really a threat (else he would have shown more than just concern).

So I looked over at the door and hissed several times throughout the rest of the night when we were awake and Wesley remained silent for the rest of the night and the next morning.

That morning we had breakfast and I had had a long cuddle with Wesley, and Cait and Richard drove me all the way back up to their house!

Bizarre incident.

Sometimes I just worried, like a mother would, I guess. I think if I had had human children I would have been terrified much of the time. I don't know how people do it - let go and let their children take all the risks that kids take. I know you HAVE to let them be kids and have freedom and try things, but it must be downright terrifying. If you think about it too much you'd make yourself crazy.

That's the only time it was that bad, though. And Cait and Richard thought it was about the hamsters all that time. Suffice it to say that they are very empathetic and nonjudgemental friends! They didn't tell me I was nuts or act like I was out of line at all. They didn't question my anxiety over the "hamsters" but just took it at face value and said, "Let's go! We're going to your house to check them, then, if you're worried." Just like that.

I'm lucky to have such great friends, and I was lucky to have such a perceptive owl! Wesley clued in immediately to what I was trying to tell him - that he needed to not reveal himself. And he didn't!

Very soon after that I did tell Cait and Richard about Wesley and that whole night's episode made more sense to them.

They knew I was a bit of a nut when it comes to animals anyway. At one of my first fiddle lessons with Cait (this is how I met her), I had stayed for dinner and we had all talked until about 11pm. I finally left and only got a block away when I saw a possum "dead" on the road.

When I see a "dead" animal on the road I never assume it's dead. I stopped my brand new vehicle and got out to have a look. I touched the possum w/ my toe. It didn't move. It wasn't breathing. I watched it for awhile to see if it would breathe and it didn't. So I turned to walk away and heard it take a deep breathe.

Duh! It had been "playing possum"! They do pretend to be dead when threatened!

He was profoundly injured though, so I got a funnel cone out of the car and a blanket and a board (DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT BEEN TRAINED TO WORK WITH WILD ANIMALS!) and slipped the cone over his nose so he wouldn't be as able to bit me, and slid the board under him, put the blanket over him and carried him into my brand new car.

Then I drove back to Cait's and knocked on the door. They were obviously already in bed but they got up and I breathlessly explained that I had an injured possum in the car and asked if I could use their phone and could we try to find an all night emergency animal clinic nearby?

They leapt into action and found a 24 hour clinic. We called and told them I was coming w/ this possum and they said they'd take him. Meanwhile I was praying the possum hadn't come to and destroyed the interior of the car while we were doing this!

When I got back in the car, he was awake but lying quietly under the blanket. I got him to the clinic and carried him in. He ended up being treated and spending some time in intensive care, then in wildlife rehab, but was finally released back into the wild in a safer place.

That incident was my first clue that Cait and Richard were kindred spirits when it came to animals!

Cait helped w/ the editing of the book and Richard is my lawyer now, for all things literary and for trademarking and all that stuff.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

HAMSTERS, of all creatures.

Here's how it happened.

Wesley and I were living alone in my apartment in La Costa, near Carlsbad, CA., which is in the North County part of San Diego, which is 35 miles north of the city itself.

Wesley was a middle aged owl, now, and had learned that I was always coming back, so he was not distressed by my going off to visit people like he had been when he was much younger. Also, we had an owl nanny. Yes! This is the woman I referred to in the book who used to sit at the doorway to "his" room and read out loud to him. She really spent a lot of time with him and could even occasionally sidle up and touch him if he were busy eating a mouse or something. Of course he knew she was doing this and allowed it.

He was quite comfortable with her and I paid her extremely well per visit - sometimes 50 dollars a visit. This is back when I was healthy and had punched my way up the corporate ladder and was doing very well in my career.

I was developing this brain tumor but didn't know it at the time.

Cait and her husband Richard and I were becoming ever closer friends, and I often stayed at their house over the weekend, with this woman being Wesley's nanny. I hadn't told Cait or Richard yet about Wesley yet, but I had started the "vetting" process with Cait, asking her endless questions about her philosophical position on issues such as keeping an unreleasable wild animal in a captive situation and making him as comfortable as possible - or should he have just been put to sleep, etc... all this theoretical animal stuff.

She patiently answered all my questions without asking me WHY I was asking them, because Cait is not a prying person and she accepts you at face value and is extremely patient.

"I am a Buddhist." She would say, "I think all animals should be kept in a loving environment and cared for as part of our sacred duty, as stewards of all living things. An animal incapable of living in the wild should be kept in an alternate, captive environment and the keeper should seek to meet all his needs."

Me: But are you against people keeping animals in captivity?
Her: (ever patient) "No, I have cats, don't I."

...and on and on. It took me a long time to decide to reveal my precious Wesley to anyone.

Cait noticed that whenever I talked about animals my entire being would light up and she began worrying about me not living with animals and urged me to get some small creatures to live with (not knowing about Wesley yet).

In spite of the fact that I had Wesley, I irrationally rationalized to myself that I did indeed NEED some MORE animals! Silly, but there you have it. Any excuse, in other words.

So, after she said this I pulled into the nearest pet store, literally, and went in to see what there was to see. And I've always thought that Teddy Bear Hamsters were the CUTEST little things on earth! However every time I'd asked about them I'd been told they were vicious biters. I had been bitten by a gerbil when I took it home for the weekend as part of my 3rd grade class' pet gerbil project and it HURT. Bad! So I was afraid of them!

But now, after Wesley and other owls, and having been bitten by just about everything, including that Benthic Worm, I decided I would tolerate the biting and hope that the hamster would become gentle. So I asked to handle them.

These particular hamsters were completely tame and mild! I was smitten and took one home.

But alas, he was young and very upset to be separated from his littermates and clawed at the glass aquarium all night long. That morning I rushed back and bought his two littermates and thus began the long saga of Hamster Haven.

You do eventually have to separate Syrian hamsters, as they will fight and eventually kill each other if you continue to keep them together as adults. People don't realize this.

I recently took in two young adult hamsters that were being kept in an aquarium (I now use the wire cages because the aquariums can become too hot, etc). I told the guy that they were probably fighting and he INSISTED they were not. Fine. I took them home and examined them and they were covered from head to toe with deep bites from each other! Just hidden under the fur so you couldn't see them - but horrible! Nasty! They were BOTH missing parts of their tender ears!

Needless to say, they are now separated and happy.

After my introduction to Barn Owls, and actually, really, even before that, I had begun being more and more attracted to animals who were solitary in nature, meaning that they were not flocking, packing, or herding animals, but solitary in the wild with the possible exception of a mate.

I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to the solitary wild soul, but I am.

Syrian Hamsters (Teddy Bear Hamsters) are completely solitary in the wilds of Syria, where they dig down 8 feet before constructing their complicated homes, with separate rooms for food storage, peeing (yes, they make a bathroom for themselves!), sleeping, nesting w/ babies, grooming, etc.

They only meet up for mating, and then just briefly.

I think I like the challenge of winning their trust and becoming their friend, of gaining their affection in an unconditional way, without social manipulation that would work w/ a packing or flocking animal. I don't know.

But I do find the wild, solitary soul of an animal to be beautiful, complex, and fascinating.

And my hamsters are a continual, surprising source of inspiration and fun!

In the next post I'll tell you about the time I was staying at Cait's and started panicking, irrationally, about Wesley's well being (he WAS being cared for by his "nanny"), and Richard and Cait driving me all the way to La Costa and staying the night, never knowing that Wesley was in a room right next to them!

How did I keep the extremely verbal and irascible Wesley quiet for two days? Tune in next time! ;-)

Wesley Collectible - progress report

We just heard today from the manufacturer that they have bumped us up to where the collectible will NOT be available in time for Christmas! I am very upset about this, as we had planned to have it in some of the Independent bookstores for the Christmas season. We are talking with the manufacturer to try to resolve the problem...

Answering Questions

When I do a reading/signing/event, I try to leave plenty of time for questions. This is especially true if I discern that most of the people at the event have already read, or are reading, the book. Then, instead of reading from the book, which is traditional, I leave more time for questions. I have encountered the most delightful people at these events!

At Book Passages in the San Francisco area, a woman came in who had read the book several times and had some questions all ready to go. She had to leave early and it was a shame I didn't get to meet her because I found her absolutely delightful in her directness and frankness. She asked me if it bothered me that I wasn't using my expertise in Barn Owls more (I'm disabled and spend most of my time in bed still), after all those years of study.

Here's the answer:
I feel like it was more important to me to explain Barn Owls through Wesley to regular people than it could ever be for me to write up scientific papers for journals that most people will never read. Those scientific papers are tough reading, plus they're waaay too expensive to subscibe to unless it's your profession to do so. This is not to say that it's not important to publish scientific papers, or that they go to waste, because they don't go to waste. The scientific community gathers the research and it ends up in the right hands doing great things, ultimately, but it can take decades for the information to reach people who have not made it their life calling to read biology journals, etc.

To me, I am using my expertise in barn owls! I'm letting people know what I found to be true, directly, through the book. I think it's more important for us as a civilization to understand that the wild animals around us are thinking, feeling, complicated, playful, loving, anxious, joyful, sorrowful...that they have real emotion and real intelligence. The other details about a particular species are important too, but only in the context of understanding the animal himself (or herself).

It's AMAZING to me to see the myriad ways in which animals are perfectly adapted to their habitat, as long as that habitat isn't messed with by human interference. But it's even more amazing to me that they have individual personalities and proclivities, opinions, scruples, thoughts, problem solving skills, ideas!

So that's my answer. I am doing exactly what I think I should be doing with the knowledge I've gained through Wesley and his Tyto Alba brethren!

If I were to have to list a book...ok make that two books...that have altered my life since childhood, they would have to be In the Shadow of Man (NUMBER ONE BOOK!) by Jane Goodall, and Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat. I have returned to those two books like they were old friends, year after year. I learned more from Jane Goodall's book about animals and the way they ARE than from all the studies I had in biology, chemistry, math, physics, philosophy, etc. It's not that I don't highly value those studies, but their END, to me, should be a deeper understanding. That's what I've been pursuing all this time - a deeper understanding. And that's what those two books helped me to find, which is why I wanted to write about Wesley and his barn owl wild compatriots, for regular people to read and understand. Of course scientists have read it too, and I've had lovely discussions w/ scientists like Dr. Don Kroodsma and Dr. Marc Bekoff about animal sentience, too.

At some point maybe I will have the opportunity to do a further study with another Barn Owl, especially in regard to his ability to process symbolic language, and perhaps even to publish in a scientific journal.

But in the meantime, if people are discussing the emotional lives of animals (which is actually another of my favorite titles, by Marc Bekoff - The Emotional Lives of Animals) then I'm a happy camper!

I sense that there is a wave of new understanding happening all over about animals and just who they really are. A groundswell of realization. And I'm very happy to be a small part of that! I'm in awe to be a small part of that!

Every one of us who has had a deep relationship with any animal, domestic or wild, is a part of that deeper understanding!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Kindred Spirits

I've met so many amazing people when I've gone out to do events from readings to talks to events with unreleasable owls! I guess that people who would gravitate toward an animal book would, of course, be kindred spirits, but I wasn't prepared for the kindness and sharing that people offer via letters, emails, and personal encounters!

I've also discovered that it's impossible to respond to everyone, which is why my publisher suggested I start the blog - that way I can voice my thoughts and hear from you. It's wonderful! Thank you all so much for the many comments and kind words, and for sharing your own experiences w/ your animal companions.

One person asked me if I've read Merle's Door and indeed I have! I cried my eyes out on that one, knowing full well that I probably would. I was very impressed at how he treated "his" dog as an equal being with an equal right to make his own decisions. If you haven't read it, you ought to. It's a great book about two people, one of whom is a dog, who find love and companionship with each other.

We don't have a word in the English language for "personhood" or "personality" in animals. So, rather than try to make up some awkward phrase, I find myself using the word personality. Then I think about what we mean when we say, "person" and I think, "well in that sense, then, animals are people. No they're not at all human but they do have sentience, personality, emotion, intelligence, and their own kind of ethic, depending on the species." So, yes, personhood in a sense.

I have always marveled at the way a human being can bring together the most unlikely of animals who will become friend with EACH OTHER in the presence of a benign and loving human. A goat and a cat, a dog and a bird, etc. That amazes me. What is it about human affection that allows these other animals to bond with EACH OTHER?

But then I had this thought the other day, humans also bond with each other in the presence of a benign and loving ANIMAL! How many of us have bonded over the way we both loved our animals, the way I love(d) Wesley bonds me to other people who have deeply loved their animal, and we feel that we somehow know each other, that there is a kindred spirit between us - an understanding of some of the deepest feelings humans can have? Many people have found friendship with other humans because of their ANIMALS!

So it goes both ways. The animals bring us together, and we bring together unlikely species of animals to be friends.

It's all a wonderful mystery!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wesley The Owl (tm) Collectible

We are ready to manufacture our first edition of 500 Wesley collectibles! Here is what he looks like. If you would like to purchase one of them in advance, send $26 plus $6 domestic ground shipping, or $10 Priority shipping, or $18 overseas shipping by Paypal to If you don't have Paypal, visit You can pre-order Wesley by credit card there.

We will ship your your Wesley when he comes in, which should be in early to mid - December.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Thank you to those of you who have sent comments!

Hi Everybody who has sent comments! Thank you SO MUCH! It's so encouraging to hear from you! I mean, I'm sitting in my little office at home, and I rarely get out, except for when I go out for events and booksignings, so it's hard to believe people are actually reading the blog and are actually reading the book and that you "get it" about how WONDERFUL Wesley was! I'm amazed that Liz in Boston got so interested that she's actually getting involved in going out and banding Saw Whet owls! That is going to be an amazing experience! Those little owls are passionate, opinionated, feisty, cute as all heck, just amazing animals. Owls have been so overlooked, I think, and they are just spectacular in their feathering, their intelligence, and their personalities! Thank you for recommending the book to people, too! Wow!

I'm very touched by those of you who felt touched by the book. It's an awesome thing when people can bond over time and space through a book. I write what's in my heart and mind, and then at some other time, you read it and experience it as if you were there with me while I was writing it. This mysterious interaction between readers and writers has always fascinated me. And even though we haven't met, there is a bond formed there! Wow. Thank you so much for your lovely comments! You have no idea how much it really does mean to me!


Grieving for an animal friend

I've noticed that a lot of people are finding that the part in the book about Wesley dying and the grief that I went through sparks in them the opening of the floodgate of grief that they themselves have for their own animal. It's amazing that this is happening, because the book did the same thing for me!

When Wesley died, I went into a sort of shock, and didn't sleep much for about 3 weeks. During that time, though, I sat at the computer and just poured out the whole story into 400 pages that became the rough draft of the book. Then I put that rough draft into chapters.

A few months later a friend of mine, Cait Reed, insisted I come to her writers' group and read my chapters there for critique. I went, but when I actually started to read, I would burst into tears at the slightest thing, like if I said, "Wesley was always gentle with me"...I'd burst into tears.

I'm not the "bursting into tears" type, so I was horrified! Week after week I couldn't get through the reading of the chapters!

I got better at it with practice, but then when I got to the end, I couldn't read at all. I just started crying. I handed the chapter to the person next to me and asked them to read it. They started to read, then they started to cry. We passed the chapter around the table and everyone was crying! even the men! And we started talking about our pets who had passed away.

I thought that was the end of it when I had gotten through that. I mean, of course I did a lot of crying at home finally, after months of being pent up inside. I left his perch up for a full year, and put flowers on it every week. After a year I took it down, but I still don't sleep in that room anymore. I still think of it as "his". And I haven't changed the room.

But then, when it came time to seriously edit the book, after I had signed with Simon and Schuster's Free Press, when I got to the chapter about Wesley starting to get old and decline, I took to my bed completely unable to write. I slept for a couple of weeks. Now, I'm disabled anyway and sleep an insane amount of time because of the brain tumor and its effect on my body and neurological system, but this was more than that. This was being totally unable to even turn on the computer and look at the chapters.

I thought I had writers' block and was kicking myself, feeling guilty, telling myself off, giving myself pep talks and then, Cait, who has a wisdom that seems to always nail the situation on the head perfectly, said, "You can't write because you're emotionally blocked because you have not finished grieving over Wesley." I started crying and couldn't stop. I cried for days. She was right as usual!

So I finally knew what the inability to edit the chapters was about, so I was able to face them. But still, I barely was able to look at them. So I asked Wendy to do the lion's share of editing, Actually, to take them and just do what she could with them herself without me even there. But she had a terrible, terrible time emotionally, and only edited them basically.

We never did spend the time on them that we had on the other chapters. I asked my agent to give it a try but it was just so hard to face and she did a cursory edit.

bottom line is that we never really gave it a deep edit, but I don't think it needed it either. I had said exactly what happened and we just left it at that.

The book, the writing of it and sharing of it, helped me process my grief over Wesley. There are still times where I just lose it. And I still think I hear the "ping" of him landing on his perch's platform and have to remind myself that he's gone.

Other owls still visit me, which is magical. They will screech as they pass over, or I'll just see them - I'm talking about Barn Owls. That helps.

It also helps to interact w/ other barn owls when I do events where there is a barn owl brought to the event by one of the local rehabilitation centers. I have two barn owl friends with whom I do events: Valentino and his human, Nancy Connie from Skyhunters, and Miss Luna, whose human is Christina Jones from South Bay Raptor Rehab.

It really helps me a lot to talk with and pet and look into the eyes of both Miss Luna and Valentino. Wesley's middle name was Valentine because I got him on Valentine's day AND because his face would one day be shaped like a white heart. I imagine that's why Valentino has that name, although in public Nancy does not admit to any name and just says, "He's a Barn Owl." It is against her personal credo to give them names in public, because she doesn't want people to think of them as potential pets, and wants them to remember the Barn Owl species rather than the name of the individual bird. I respect that. But one cannot stay immune to the power of those eyes, to the intensity of the devotion of one's owl, so one ends up naming him anyway, right? Right. ;-)

I am hoping with all my heart that I will be able to get another permit (Wesley's was only for him, and didn't extend to other owls, so no, I don't have another owl yet), and take in another unreleasable barn owl. I want to see if another owl would use his massive auditory cortex to learn human language just like Wesley did, and if he'd make up his own language - make that huge logical leap to understanding the concept of symbolic vocal language, and create his own, like Wesley did. In other words, was Wesley the Einstein of Barn owls or was he right in there with other Barn Owls in his capabilities? I suspect the latter but I'd like to prove it. And this time I would give much more attention to proving and documenting everything w/ video.

I do have hours of video of us together. I need to digitize it all to make it accessible. I have his sounds, too, of course, and how those vocalizations went with his certain behaviors. All that remains to be gone through and verified and written up. Whew!

But the main thing I'm writing about here is that we do have the right to grieve over the loss of our amazing animals and the profound way they affect us. I am glad that we outlive them in one way, because we can make sure they have a full and comfortable life, and that they don't end up in abusive situations. We can make sure they are comfortable in their old age and have a dignified and peaceful end (we can't control everything, but at least we know they were with us and we were with them, hopefully. Again, we can't control all circumstances, I realize that).

But by outliving our dear animal friends, we are doomed to grieve.

I have hamsters, as you know if you read the book. Hamsters only live 2-4 years (I have Syrian hamsters - teddy bear hamsters). I am ALWAYS grieving over a hamster and my friends say, "Why do you do this to yourself? Why don't you pick a species that lives longer?" Well, I don't feel like I "picked" this species for one thing. I feel like this species picked me and drove their little selves deep into my heart and they will always charm me and I will never be able to resist them.

Every single hamster has his own personality. And for years I averaged 56 hamsters at a time because I had a hamster rescue center called Hamster Haven. So I've had hundreds of hamsters in my days, and I can tell you that I have never seen a single hamster set up his cage exactly like all the other hamsters! They have their own, individual ideas about how it should be done!

One hamster will take to a certain toy or feature, and another will ignore it completely. Examples?
Some of my hamsters prefer to lounge in these ferret or rat hammocks that are sold in pet stores. I put them up in a few cages to see what would happen and I have hamster who spend the majority of their time in their hammock, above the rest of the cage! Others ignore it completely or chew it, take it down, and drag it into their nest as a blanket.

Another "toy" is also for ferrets - it's a fuzzy ball that's about the size of a Syrian Hamster, and it has a little bell deep inside it. Some hamsters (I can hear one doing it right now) wrestle with that ball as if it's a littermate, rolling all over the cage with it, with the hamster spread eagle wrapped around the ball, rolling and biting and then jumping off and pushing the ball all over with their nose. That ball is a huge source of entertainment for them. Other hamsters shove it into a corner and completely ignore it, never finding any pleasure, curiosity, or interest in it.

And on it goes.

If I put a kleenex box in there (after removing the bits of plastic lining), some will chew it, some will make it into their "bathroom", others will take bedding in there and move into it as their sleeping quarters, and some will let it sit there and take up space, completely ignoring it until I take it out.

Anyway, it's worth the grief of their short lives, because there is always another one coming up and becoming an amazing little affectionate friend. It's not that I forget the ones that die, but that I don't let it keep me from enjoying the ones I have that are alive still. And yes, it's totally worth it to me! I can't imagine the sterility of living without the hustle and bustle of these very busy and intensely focused little creatures around me all night! I can't imagine not cuddling with them and having them sleep in my hand while I breathe in their sweet smell (kind of like 'Nilla Wafers) and stroke their silky fur. They nudge my nose with theirs and lick my lips as a way of kissing or showing affection. They're amazing and fun!

So, yes, I want to take in another Barn Owl and am exploring getting a permit to do so, and finding the owl that needs a place. And yes, it's worth the grief. And yes, the book helped me grieve Wesley, and now it's like keeping him alive, sort of, when I get to talk about him and tell people about his ways and antics and compare barn owl stories with other people who are caring for unreleasable owls. The book has been a huge blessing to me in that way! And it's been amazing to share with other people and have them share with me, their love for their animals! It's a profound love that's hard to explain and certainly cannot be measured!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Organizations to which one can donate:

That's a great idea - to let you guys know what organizations I've found to be the best for owls/wildlife.

I donate to Defenders of Wildlife first and foremost because they actually watch what's going on in Washington and lobby for the defense and protection of wildlife, which is always under siege by big businesses and other groups wanting to wipe them out. The delisting of the wolves is a perfect example. The Bush administration delisted the wolves from the endangered list just in time to have them gotten rid of when/if anyoe decided to drill in any areas where there might be wolves. Now, I don't get into politics too much, myself, but I am aware that very soon (or was it last week?) is the time when the ban on drilling comes up for reconsideration. And one of the problems for the companies who want to drill is that they have to deal with environmental concerns, such as endangered species living in the ares. I know from all the magazines I get like Audubon, Scientific American, Smithsonian, all the Birding magazines, Defender's of Wildlife, National Wildlife Foundation, etc... that they can still drill in areas where there are endangered species, such as the sage grouse, but they have to make certain provisions. I don't know for sure if the delisting of the wolf packs had anything to do with the timing of this though.

What happened after the delisting was like some kind of nightmare. There was, and is, a mass slaughter of the wolf packs that were so carefully re-instated in places like Yellowstone. Using the very radio collars that biologists had put on the wolves to track them in order to monitor their health, hunters tracked them down by plane, then chased them from the air until they fell to the ground exhausted. Then they machine gunned them down. Not once. It's been going on for months. It's a bloodbath.

Being a behavioral biologist type, I've always been fascinated by the dynamics in wolf packs. It takes forever for a wolf pack to recover from the loss of one alpha wolf because only the alpha pair breeds in a given wolf pack! I think that's ASTOUNDING. Only the alpha pair breeds and the other all control themselves and help with the babies of the alpha pair. It's a kind of altruism that works for them if they're not being slaughtered, that is. But if they ARE being slaughtered, they just cannot recover quickly enough to continue to breed.

If an alpha wolf is killed, the whole pack has to reorganize their heirarchy through a very elaborate series of mock battles where the next in line for the throne is decided. Wolves do NOT fight to the death! They "fight" to figure out who is strongest but they do NOT inflict serious damage on each other, unlike humans. After all this elaborate stuff, the next alpha male or female is decided. Also, there is a mourning period! The wolves howl and grieve the one lost, alpha or not. If there are puppies, they feel the loss terribly even if it's just an "uncle" because all the other wolves are their caretakers too, like wolf nannies or extended family members. I think even, that the other females in the pack will lactate to share in the nursing of the babies, but I'd have to check my facts on that since I'm not a wolf expert.

Because of massive pressure from Defenders of Wildlife and some other groups, a federal judge finally stepped forward to stop the slaughter in the lower 48 states, but in Alaska it continues unabated. Anyone in a helicopter can chase down and slaughter as many wolves as they want - in FACT, the Alaskan government has been offering $150 per wolf paw for several months. I only hope they do kill the wolves before taking their paws. Why is Alaska doing this? The wolves are NOT causing serious, unsolveable problems. They are not decimating the cariboue as they live almost entirely on mice during the majority of the year and only go after caribou once or twice a year, when the caribou do their migration.

If you want to know more about how the wolves actually live, there is no better and no more entertaining a book than "Never Cry Wolf" by Farley Mowat. It's hilarious, believe it or not, as well as very informative. The guy went out to prove that the wolves were decimating the caribou herds, to justify hunting the wolves from the air, for trophy hunters, it turned out. This is in, what, the late 1930s? Ok. So he goes out there and lives among the wolves - literally pitches his tent on one of the paths the wolves had created right in the middle of their territory, and he pee's a circle around his tent, which the wolves honored, surprisingly!

Even more surprising was his discovery that the wolves were living almost entirely on mice! That was unprecedented at the time, so to prove that a large mammal could actually live solely on mice, he did the only thing he could do. You guessed it, he used himself as the guinea pig and lived on a diet of just mice for a year. He even publishes his recipes in the book! I never tried the recipes or mice in any other form, so I can't vouch for them, but he managed! There were hundreds of mice per square foot in the Alaskan tundra.

So, why are we back in the 1930s again? Could it be that the Alaskan government wants to wipe out the wolf packs completely before they go to drill. Then when they do go to drill they can say, "Wolf packs? What wolf packs? There are no wolves where we want to drill!", thereby avoiding any environmental considerations? The question must be asked, "WHY?"

The logic of some of these people is that if there is an environmental concern, get RID of it. THEN go in and drill. They've learned to do that so that there is no challenge to them poisoning an area or impacting it harmfully. Clever, eh? Also so sick that it's hard to believe we are in the 21st century. One likes to think that we've become more civilized, more circumspect in our decisionmaking. Not when there's a lot of money to be made!

No, we are still as capable of bloodthirsty behavior now as the buffalo hunters were in the 1800s. When it was not enough to kill, oh, let's say half of the buffalo. No, they had to try to kill every last friggin buffalo. I've read that they were killing off the buffalo, from trains, to starve out the Indians. Maybe that was the reason. I don't know, I wasn't there. But if it is, then that's greed for ya. That's humanity at its worst - we are capable of massive slaughter of animals and, at times even, people.

Organizations like Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Foundation are doing something about this kind of behavior, and they need all the help they can get, because it's an uphill battle. We do need resources for our country, but we can get them without destroying everything in our path. It might cost a little more to be thoughful and careful, but in the end it's better for us all if we do things the right way.

Defenders of Wildlife is an amazing organization and I donate to them. I am giving 5% of my royalties from the book to wildlife organizations, and 5% to human organizations like Compassion International and World Vision, both of which I've vetted very carefully in regard to how they use their money - where the money goes and what is done with it.

I also donate to local wildlife and raptor rehabilitation centers. You could, find out where your local raptor rehabilitation center is and donate to them. These places operate on a shoestring and most of the people who work there are volunteers, spending their own personal money on mice and other food and supplies for the birds of prey (owls included). They not only rehabilitate birds of prey that have been injured so that they can be released into the wild again, but they also take excellent care of birds who can never again be released. They give them a good life.

I also donate to the National Wildlife Foundation, Audubon, ASPCA, Jane Goodall Institute, Sierra Club.

The Jane Goodall Institute has a program for kids called "Roots and Shoots". Each Roots and Shoots club comes up with their own project to help the environment or to help wildlife. It's neat because it can be tailored to the local issues in any place. These clubs exist everywhere from Orange County and San Diego to Tanzania to almost anywhere in the world. It's a great idea for home schooled kids to get involved with this, or for school clubs or any other group - scouts... It proves that even little kids can make a difference and it's very empowering.

If you donate to National Wildlife Foundation, you can sponsor an owl family if you want to. I have sponsored a family of Snowy Owls.

There's a Barn Owl specific organization that I think is doing great work, and that is Hungry Owl in San Francisco. They are convincing people to stop using rodenticides to get rid of their rodent problem, and instead are putting up Owl Boxes, which are like HUGE Birdhouses for owls, in areas overrun with rodents. An owl family will move in and just clean the place right up. The rodents provide food for the owls, and the owls do a wonderful service by keeping the rodent population from getting out of hand. After all, a family of barn owls needs about 35 mice per night while raising the babies. That's a lot of mice!

I intend to link to them "real soon now", but in the meantime, they are at

Also, I really like
which is a rehab organization in San Diego. Near Los Angeles there is South Bay Raptor Rehab, which is also excellent.

There are a lot more, of course, and there is a rehab center near you, I can almost guarantee it.

Great subject! Great question! Thanks for the suggestion!

Pictures aren't showing up after I've put them in


I put the pictures into the blog, no problem. Then, after I sign out and come back in, the pictures no longer show up. How can that be? It's so frustrating! I'm a newbie at this whole blogging thing and can't seem to figure out how to make the pictures STAY put.

Does anyone know how to do this?

I'm sorry the pics can't be seen. I'm going to ask Wendy to put them into the blogs where they're supposed to be.

Thanks for your patience!

Me and Wesley kissing

Wesley and I used to snuggle for hours at a time. Often I would recline and he would be on my chest with his wings up around my shoulders and I'd be rubbing him under the wings or on his nose or neck. Other times I'd balance him in the palm of one hand, and he'd pull up his feet. I'd hold him so his head was snuggled under my chin and with the other hand I'd groom him and rub the bridge of his nose or the back of his neck or top of his head.

In this picture, we had been snuggling like that when he woke up and wanted to groom me on the face and kiss me on the nose. So I'm kissing him back.

The only way I could get a picture of this was by putting a video camera on a table and sitting in front of it within the frame that I saw through the lens. Wesley would never relax enough to do this kind of thing in front of people - well almost never - and so it was nearly impossible for someone else to take a picture of us snuggling.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Arleta's Behavioral Experiment and the Laws of Physics

(Warning: Do not try either of these experiments without help from a professional.)

I have a number of long term friends with whom I've been close since pre-school, first grade, or 7th grade. Then there are a few "newer" friends with whom I've been close for a mere 10, 20 years or so. In the book, I talk about Wendy quite a bit, and Cait, so you have sort of "met" them. But Arleta is another very close friend who had always had great influence in my life. I blogged about how she and I worked together to stop the tormenting/bullying of the mentally retarded kids on the playground when we were in the first grade. And, yes, that's what they were called by the teachers and staff!

We were part of an experiment where everyone's IQ was rigorously tested (Not just a written test, but a whole board of people w/ notebooks and cameras asking you to do all kinds of things and many different types of tasks). The results of these IQ tests were not kept secret from the kids AT ALL! We knew who was "genius", who was "mentally gifted" and who was "not technically mentally gifted, but still an overachiever". Why did we have to know these labels about each other? What could it possibly have accomplished? I don't know.

But I can say without a doubt that Arleta was one of the "high genius" kids and it showed. Her creativity of thought confounded our teachers all the way through school.

I talked with her last night and she told me about a little "science experiment" she did in behavioral psychology that was brilliant, and funny, I think.

For some reason, there was a cluster of us kids growing up together who were fascinated by science AND behavior - human and animal. We were also all musicians, I think. How odd. So we were friends all the way through life.

Arleta had a 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Elseworth, whose class failed to grab her imagination. It wasn't the teacher so much as it was the class. Upstairs, though, she also had a Psychology course taught by Ms. Compton, which she found fascinating. The two classes converged in the most interesting way, as things tend to do with Arleta.

Mr. Elseworth assigned a tedious project where each kid had to write down a minute by minute description of every activity they did, every day, and how much time they spent doing it. For a MONTH! Arleta could see the month stretching before her with having to write down everything and she thought to herself, "I'm not doing this stupid project. I don't CARE what percentage of time I spend brushing my teeth, for instance. I am NOT doing this project."

Having decided that, she had to come up w/ a plan. Upstairs in Psychology, Ms. Compton was describing the power of suggestion and the idea of false memory. AHA! Arleta would do an experiment in false memory and write her psych paper on that, and if it worked, she could avoid doing the "write down everything you do for a month" project.

She had to plant a false memory in Mr. Elseworth. She first chose a number that people naturally remember. She decided to use 98.6, which is the normal temperature of the human body. Now all she had to do is convince Mr. Elseworth that she had received from him a 98.6 on her project. She had to get him to associate the number 98.6 with "Arleta". So she waited until kids started turning in their projects a month later. Mr. Elseworth taught 6 science classes and a lot of them were doing this project, so when there were enough papers to be confusing, she started going up to Mr. Elseworth and saying things like, "I was only able to track 98.6 % of my time, so I got a 98.6. Is that ok? I mean, I somehow didn't record 100% of everything!" He'd reassure her that this was ok.

For the next month (he gave the kids a month to compile their data after the month of recording was finished) she would approach him in the halls and at lunch and during random times and say, "Is the 98.6 going to be enough? I mean, my other work wasn't that highly scored, so I hope the 98.6 is enough." and he'd say, "I think that's enough."

So it went until the end of the semester. Arleta got her report card and it said, "Incomlete". She went in to Mr. Elseworth and said, "Why do I have an incomplete? What's going on?" He said he had never received her paper. "Oh yes you did, Mr. Elseworth! Remember? I got a 98.6 on it!" He did remember. He said he remembered SEEING the paper even, and apologized profusely to Arleta, shuffling through the papers. "Oh dear, I don't know where it is. I'm so sorry. I must have misplaced it! I do remember seeing it though - and you did get a 98.6."

Finally, he just couldn't find it and apologized again for all the trouble he had caused her. Since he clearly remembered seeing the paper and giving it a 98.6, he gave her a 98.6 on the project, which was 80% of that semester's grade, so she got an A or B in the class.

She had never done the project.

Meanwhile, she wrote up her experiment in her psychology paper and turned it in to Ms. Compton saying, "This cannot go outside the walls of this room." Ms. Compton asked, "Why? Did you do anything illegal? Could it get you in trouble?"

"Well," said Arleta, "It could get both you and me in trouble."
"ME?" Asked the teacher.
"Yes, you. After all, you're the one who taught me exactly how to do this, and I tried it, and it worked!" Arleta said.

When she got the paper back from Ms. Compton it just said, "Hmmm" across the top. She got an A. Ms. Compton never told on her. The creation of a false memory had worked.

Only Arleta would have had the guts to apply her education so directly in such a scary way, but that's Arleta. Her enthusiasm for knowledge and experimentation exceeds her need to be perfectly safe and secure. She would go out on a limb in her thirst for understanding, because of her scientific curiosity.

And that's the hallmark of a scientist, I think. Curiosity. Wanting to TRY IT. Wanting to SEE IT work.

I was in freshman physics in college and we had a professor from a foreign country where the culture views women as weak and vulnerable. There were also some big, macho Arab guys in the class. This professor would rant and rave, yelling, "Do you BELIEVE in the LAWS OF PHYSICS? They are ABSOLUTE! You cannot VIOLATE THE LAWS OF PHYSICS!" and on and on.

One day he brought in the classic bed of nails and laid it in front of the class like a gauntlet. "OK!" he challenged. "Who here believes in the laws of physics!?" I raised my hand. I always sat in the front of the room because it kept me involved. He tried to ignore me but I wouldn't let him. "Anyone else?" Nope.

"If you TRULY BELIEVE in the LAWS OF PHYSICS, you will lay down on this bed of nails AND I will put a board on you and two of our biggest men will stand on you!" he shouted. "So let's see who really understands and believes in the LAWS OF PHYSICS!!!"

I was waving my hand frantically and he was studiously ignoring me. Finally I stood up and said, "You are ignoring me because I am small and female. That makes me wonder if YOU believe in the Laws of Physics! If YOU believe in the Laws of Physics you'll let me try out the bed of nails!

He turned pale and sweaty. This was not what he had had in mind. Yes, it's true that when you distribute your weight across many different points, no one point bears very much weight, so the touch of the nails is very small - very little pressure per nail because the pressure is so well distributed. Same goes for adding a board and putting some men on it. The board, across your body, distributes the weight of the men so that there is no one place on your body that is taking a lot of pressure. So it's safe.

The trick is to get onto the bed of nails without putting too much pressure on any one part of your body as you lower yourself onto it.

So I went over and carefully lowered myself onto the bed of nails. So far so good. Two big Arab guys stood up and got the board and laid it over me, then climbed up onto it. The room was tense and quiet and the professor was sweating profusely. I smiled. "Yep, it works! The Laws of Physics still work!"

He was very anxious to end the experiment though, and so we ended it. I felt no discomfort whatsoever, and I"m glad I got to try it! It was fun! And it was really fun to challenge the professor about HIS faith in the Laws of Physics that day! Hee hee. I think I had been influenced by Arleta all those years!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wesley The Owl Plushie (Baby Wesley)

This is the prototype for the Baby Wesley the Owl (TM) Plushie that we are going to probably have out before Christmas. We may yet take off the extra feathering around the beak (it makes him look like Einstein!), and we'll definitely make the beak smaller, but what do you think? Do you like it? It does reflect Wesley at a certain time in his life. I'd like to hear what people think of it. Would you want to buy one? Would you want to carry it in your store? I'm terribly biased, you see, because I want my very own little Wesley to remember my real Wesley by. But that's me. What about you?

THANK YOU SO MUCH! + Favorite Books

Thank you so much to those of you who have commented and said such kind things! It means a lot to me to hear from you and know that there are kindred spirits out there with whom I'm connecting via the book. It's a fantastic, mysterious process when a writer writes in one space and time, and the reader experiences what was in the writer's heart and mind in a different space and time, yet there is this connection through the pages. I've always been fascinated with that. I always used to say, when I was a kid, that you can go almost anywhere and 'experience' almost anything through books. And you can get inside another person's head through a book more than through any other vehicle. While you're reading, you're totally absorbed in the same thoughts that absorbed the write while she was writing.

Steven King writes about this in his book, "On Writing", which is one of the best books about the process of writing a book that I've ever come across. I use his "method" when I write. I mean, hey, this guy has sold some 96MILLION books so he's doing something right, right? I'd say!

All that to say, THANK YOU SO MUCH for the kind words you've written to me - both through the blog and those of you who have written to my publisher (yes, they forwarded your letters!).

Here is a list of some of my all time, life time favorite books and book series: First of all, the books listed on MY book are all great, which is why we went to those specific authors asking for their opinion on Wesley the Owl! So I HIGHLY recommend all of those books!

In the Shadow of Man - Jane Goodall (Plus every other book she's written, of course)
Never Cry Wolf - Farley Mowat
Mind of the Raven - Berndt Heinrich
James Herriott's books (All Creatures Great and Small, etc.)
All 9 of Laura Ingalls Wilders' books. Read as an adult and you'll see them in a whole new (scary!) light as a parent taking kids through such dangerous conditions! Wow!
The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series
An American Homeplace, and other books by Donald McCaig (Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men)
The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery
Grayson, and Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox (wow, she really did those swims!)
Redmond O'Hanlon's book about Borneo
Running the Amazon - Joe Kane
Hawk Hill - Suzie Gilbert
Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds - Sam Keen
Into Thin Air - Krakauer
Deep Survival - Lawrence Gonzales
How Dogs Think - Stanley Coren
The Gift of Fear - Gavin de Becker
The Singing Life of Birds - Dr. Don Kroodsma
The Emotional Lives of Animals - Marc Bekoff
Flyaway - Suzie Gilbert (soon to be released)
All of the Ann of Green Gables books
Little Women
The Big Year - Mark Obmascik
Fish that Fake Orgasms - Matt Walker (full of stuff I learned in Biology - wierd facts about animal behavior)
Pride and Prejudice
Merle's Door - Ted Karasote
That Quail, Robert -
Kingbird Highway and Flights Against Sunset - Kenn Kaufman (also I like his field guide the best. It's easiest to use and the pictures are ACCURATE!)
Rascal - Sterling
Nobody's Horses - Don Hoglund
the books by Tory Hayden (about working w/ special needs kids)
Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt
Miracle Dog - Randy Grim
From Baghdad with Love - Jay Kopelman
An Beal Beacht - (The Poor Mouth in English) by Flann O'Brien HILARIOUS!
I love Garrison Keillor and his sharp understanding of human nature. His newest book, Pontoon, is indeed Kafka'esque-ish dark humor. I laughed until my abs hurt.
The Hunt for Red October - Tom Clancy (he wrote it while working in a slow post office desk job, spending his nights doing research. wow! How inspiring!)
Pools of Bright Water

Hmm. I'll poke around my bookcases and get the authors on the ones where I didn't list them. Some of these books I've bought in stacks because I give them away so often. The ones I buy in stacks and give to people are:
An Beal Beacht/The Poor Mouth
In the Shadow of Man
Never Cry Wolf
The Gift of Fear
Deep Survival
That Quail, Robert
and I give the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to the kids I know.
The Good, Good Pig
The Emotional Lives of Animals

I don't loan out books. I buy and give them away and replace them for myself. If it's that great, I figure, the author deserves my buying them!

Man, there are so many books. The ones I keep in my permanent library cover the walls in most rooms almost to the ceiling.

In fact, when I was a kid, I was almost killed/injured by books during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. We were located almost on the faultline. The house next door split right in half!

We were naive about the severity of earthquakes and I had books all the way up to the wall w/ my bed shoved against that. The bookcases were made of bricks and board. Our family could never keep up with the flow of books. I also had stacks of books on the floor, so when the earthquake hit, my mattress started sliding across the stacks of books as if I was riding the whitewater on a river on my mattress. In slow motion I remember looking up and seeing the wall of books coming down on top of me, but at the exact same time a strong arm shot into my room and pulled me out the door before the books and bricks landed on the bed. It was my Dad grabbing me just in time. My Mom had run in and grabbed my sister and we all crawled (you couldn't walk w/ the earth jumping around) to a point in the house that my Uncle Warren O'Brien (who became the head of civil engineering for all of L.A. County) had deemed the strongest point. The point most likely to remain standing in an earthquake. Whew! Close call!

So now I keep my bed away from the towering bookcases but they remain a steadfast part of my life.

How does one even begin to list their favorite books? I just tried but that doesn't even scratch the surface of old favorites. Maybe it'd be better to do it by author?

Things I Tell Myself when I'm not feeling productive

I've been looking at my very marked up computer monitor and thinking about when and why I wrote all these encouraging little slogans on it. While writing the book, there were times when I was bogged down, didn't know if it was really any good, or just sick/tired and felt unable to force myself to sit up and write. In fact, there were times when I fell asleep while writing and woke up with keyboard imprints all over my face and a file full of one or two letters. haha.

So I started writing little notes to myself in the monitor itself. The first one was
"Be more courageous. Fearless, like Wendy! Powerful!"
Wendy seems to me to be absolutely fearless in just wading into the fray and doing whatever her heart desires without the usual "gee do you really think it'll work? Can I really do it?" kinds of self talk. If she wants to sell her art, she just does. Record an album? She just does it. Start a new business? Goes for it and succeeds beyond anyones' wildest dreams. Over and over and over again. In fact, everything she touches turns to gold. She rolls out of bed in the morning and thinks to herself, "hmm, what do I feel like doing today?" and she generally does just EXACTLY what she FEELS LIKE DOING. And you know what? no matter what she does, it turns to pure gold.
If she plays w/ her kittens, she's socializing them for when she places them in homes. Yes, she gets up to $2,000.00 for one of her kittens so playing w/ her kittens is just good business sense. If she wants to horse around w/ her herd of horses, GREAT! She is becoming even more in tune w/ her champion stallion and the herd dynamics and is becoming an even more amazing horse whisperer. The stallion considers her to be the lead mare and the horses consider her to be part of the herd, because she has learned the body language of horses and is able to communicate w/ them in the most amazing way I've ever seen. She'll tell me how she taught a horse something and then "he chewed at me!", meaning he is saying he gets it. Sheesh!

But what if she just wants to lie around and play with bits of wool? No problem! She drags out some wool and starts messing around w/ it, gets a barbed pin and starts poking the wool, and an hour later she has the most exquisite miniature animal made of felted wool that you've ever seen.

I collect dollhouses and miniatures and I can tell you that there is no other artisan out there making such realistic miniature animals! Then she puts it on ebay and watches people bid like mad for it. Some of her animals sell for around 400 or 500 bucks. Great!

Or her photography. Maybe she'll mess around w/ that today. Or her many websites. Or the 3 amazing and varied books she's writing, all of which are hot hot hot.....

So, yeah. She's fearless and everything she does ends up being the right thing and ends up helping her to make a living. I don't know anyone else quite like her.

Another time, I was feeling fearful about whether or not I was making the right decisions about the book - what to keep in, what to throw out, how I was editing it. So I wrote:

"It's just behavioral - if you act like a writer, you are a writer. Wesley, not fear, is my motivator!"

Another time I was thinking "how can I do this w/ the limited energy I have?" I had a rule while I was writing this book, which was: If I'm awake, I should be writing. Of course one has to eat and things like that, but no other energy draining activities were allowed. I didn't even read while I was in the process of writing, other than books ABOUT writing and the publishing world. After all, I had to learn a whole new industry if I was going to have a new career as a writer! So I wrote:
"Work with what you've got. It has to be enough."

For bottom line procrastinating I wrote: "DO IT FOR WESLEY!"
After all, Wesley was worth telling the world about, don't you think? I sure do!

It's not as if I needed all these little slogans very often. Most of the time I was passionate about working on the book. But there were times when I wasn't feeling well, or was discouraged, or didn't believe in myself. After all, when you haven't tested your writing out there in the world, how do you really know if people are going to enjoy the way you write or not? I went to a great writers' group that was honest and professional, which helped a lot. And I had some wonderful people in my life who knew what they were doing, who said they really liked it. But still, doubts sometimes clouded my mind.

And then, one of the most wonderful pieces of music ever written, The Messiah by Handel (did you know he wrote the entire thing in 30 days? He didn't come out of his room for meals, even. He had the meals brought to the door. He barely slept. The whole thing came to him almost at once and he couldn't write fast enough to keep up so he didn't dare stop), has some great lines in it. I was listening to it one day while writing and these words popped out, so I wrote them on the computer monitor as well:

"Every valley shall be exalted, and the rough places made plain. Every mountain shall be made low and the crooked, straight."

Man, if that doesn't define our lives, I don't know what does. ESPECIALLY if you're a writer. All the rough times in your life are great fodder for your writing! Cait jokes that if you're a writer, you'll be saying, as you die, "Wait! This is great material! Get me a pen!" haha. It's true though.

And finally, I taped the following fortune cookie fortune to the monitor:
"Take no risks with your reputation."

To me, honesty and integrity in my writing is foremost. I don't make up things to enhance the "scene". This is nonfiction! Besides, who could make this stuff up? I've had such an amazing run with the animals I've known and the people I've known that I'll probably never have to make anything up! I might write fiction one day, but even that will probably be based on real situations and people. I suspect that a lot of "fiction" is stuff that the writer didn't dare write as nonfiction because of the people involved, so they made the people into "characters" and told the story in a way that wasn't recognizable by the people they were talking about. Haha. I KNOW for a FACT that writers have done that, actually. Hee hee hee!

When I'm upset about a situation, it's fun to imagine writing it as a fictionalized scene. I have written some small stories based on real people that are sort of farcical, just to get it off my chest. I'm sure a lot of people do that...

So those are the inane ramblings of one writer when she needs encouragement. Maybe not very profound, but they are good reminders at 3am when I'm trying to push through the blahs.

Do any of you have little sayings that motivate you and get you going? I'd love to hear about them in the comments section!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Coping with Financial Loss

I've been thinking a lot about how people are losing money, these days. I'm a few years ahead of you, in that I lost everything several years ago. I lost my very well and carefully tended 401K in its entirety due to extreme medical bills above and way beyond my coverage. I had to cash it out to pay them and to pay for medicine. Then I lost my home. Of course, before all that happened, I lost my health, my way of life, and my career, due to my extreme disability. I lost my ability, even, to control consciousness. Now THAT is a loss of control - not knowing from one moment to the next if I'm going to slip into a coma and wake up 3 days later on the hall floor. Yep, it happened something like 130 times. Once I was pulled out of my truck, unconscious, and packed off to a hospital. I had known I was going into a "phase" and had pulled into a supermarket.

The only thing I had control of was that I did know when I was going into a "phase" because about 1/2 hour before it happened, I would get blue sparkly spots in front of my eyes. It didn't mean I was necessarily going to go unconscious, but it meant I needed to get somewhere safe. It took me awhile to figure this out, of course.

Those of you who've read the book know all about this part of my life.

The thing is, though, that I lost all that and I'm still here. My mom stepped in and let me AND WESLEY move in with her (which was not easy for her. It was terrible for her). But we made do and I did find doctors, after a long and difficult search, who could figure out how to manage some of my symptoms to the point where I haven't had a coma for quite some time now, and I've learned to pad every event with days of sleep. I do mean DAYS of sleep. My publisher is careful to schedule any event so that I have tons of time to sleep before and after. Sometimes I have to hire a driver, but that's ok!

And I have to take a lot of medication to get through any event, and then cut back on my meds and sleep when I'm not doing an event.

In order to write the book, I had a rule: If I was able to get out of bed for any length of time, I had to write. Just write! And I did, sometimes for only 15 minutes before going back to bed. But little by little, the book took its form.

So why am I reiterating all this? Because it's not the end of the world when you lose everything you've worked for all your life. Really. I'm not joking. I thought it was the end of the world when it happened. I thought, and was even told, that there was absolutely no light at the end of this horrible, painful, dark tunnel. And I was in excruciating pain most of the time (still am, but have meds that keep it to a dull roar).

What it comes down to is that you can lose everything and still not lose EVERYTHING. You can lose the ground you had thought you'd covered, the progress you thought you'd made, the level of professional success you thought you had achieved. I labored hard to punch my way up the corporate ladder, to get to the point where I was very high up in my field. But then I lost it all.

But if you're not dead, and if you're not literally permanently homeless, you really have not lost it all. You may have lost what you thought was your identity, but it's not all it was cracked up to be. Trust me on this.

I thought my accomplishments, my way of life, my careful savings, all that, even my level of physical fitness, for pete's sake, was part of my identity. When I lost all that (geez, I even lost my looks. The meds all say "weight gain" as their number one side effect and they are not kidding!), I finally realized that my worth as a human being was none of all of that. My worth as a human being is my ability to love and be loved. And if it came down to it, really, it's my ability to love that makes me worth having in this world. That's it!

Now, I realize I was lucky to have a place to land. But it's not what I had in mind for my life! Living in my mother's house? No! I was on my own by age 16, in college, going strong, financially on my own, even, because of growing up in show business and making my own nest egg. I paid for my own education and housing, food and clothing, cars, etc. My parents never had to pony up for the expenses that most parents take for granted such as college and clothing and books and cars. Nope, not me! My sister and I took our MOM to Mazatlan when I was 16, rather than being taken there by our parents.

So I took "pride" even in that. Now here I was, waaay too old to be living with my mommy, totally stuck and dependent. Oh sure, I had the golden parachute but the big long term disability policy? They defaulted on millions of people, including me. And I did not have the strength for a lawsuit - and they knew that.

I'm saying that we/you will survive this financial crisis. People will regroup, People will have to consolidate and possibly even live together when that's the last thing they ever thought they'd have to do. They'll have to learn to put up with each other, be less stuck in their ways, compromise, let go of that house in the Hamptons (as IF we all had THAT!), pool their resources w/ family and friends possibly even for food.

We need to think that way now. But it's not a nuclear bomb, after all. Yes it's a terrible loss. People very close to me have lost their homes in a very unfair situation. And no, they were not "unqualified in the first place". Shit happens to good people.

I'm hoping that people will realize, though, that they can survive this. It's not something to commit suicide over. People who went through the depression, for example, went on to live very fulfilling lives. My grandparents on both sides have thrived and lived very exciting, meaningful lives, in spite of the depression.

If people pull together and are willing to compromise, we can all get through this. It just requires a return to the basic values that we perhaps knew about when we were much younger and much less invested in the career paths, the financial portfolios, the luxuries, the things we take for granted that we can no longer take for granted.

Most of us, though, are still not living on the level of, say, a child born in the worst slum of India to parents who have leprosy and no hope of anything, sold into prostitution at age 5 so that the parents can eat. Think I'm being ridiculous?

I sponsor kids all over the world through Compassion International and have been doing so for about 25 years. I tell you, those kids keep me humble and keep my perspective. A little girl in Bolivia who, when they got to her, was barely alive. Her father and all the animals had already died of starvation and she was nearly dead from starvation. But they did get to her and she did get an education and is now a math whiz and a teacher in La Paz. She's done extremely well! I've sponsored so many of these kids and their letters are inevitably cheerful and upbeat. They are so grateful for an education, nutritious food, medical care, clothing, even though they live in the worst slums in the world.

I have spoken to many of them. What I do is arrange to be able to call the project out of which the services are rendered, then they run down the "street" (really these are not streets. They are piles of shacks, some made of cardboard, with effluent running down the center of the dirt tracks between shacks), and the kid comes to the phone and we talk. And talk. And TALK!

I speak Portuguese (N. Brazilian) and Spanish, which of course makes this possible.

But if they can manage to be happy, to get up every morning and see opportunity, then so can we. Seriously!

Wesley Makes the Front Page of the OC Register!

I got my Orange County Register today, hoping that there would be an article about Wesley the Owl in there, since I had done an interview last week for it. I wasn't absolutely sure when it was going to run, and I assumed it would be buried in the Lifetime section or something like that. NOT SO! It was on the FRONT PAGE! WOWEEE! I wish Wesley was alive and would have understood that his precious baby face was on the front page of the OC Register! It was one of his baby pictures, when he was at his cutest. WOW!

I guess that there are now a lot of online archives of radio shows I've been doing, and I probably need Wendy to link to them from the home page so that you can listen, if you want. I was on NPR's "Living With Animals" and on quite a few other shows around the country. It's always interesting to me to interact with different talk show hosts and get their particular take on the book. Some will emphasize the owl behavior part, others want to talk about my illness and how animals can help people heal and help a person through depression, as Wesley certainly did for me. Some are interested in the lifestyle aspect of the book - how crazy and different my lifestyle was and how people responded to it - particularly boyfriends! And along with that, the really eccentric lives of my fellow biologists, some of whom lived much wierder lives than I could even dream of. I put that chapter in partly because I couldn't resist telling a bit about these amazing folks, and partly to put my own nutty life in some kind of perspective. ;-)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Barn Owl Question: Will they kill rats?

When I was in San Francisco I was talking w/ the people from the Hungry Owl project. They install owl boxes in areas that have rodent infestations all over San Francisco and the owls clean up the rodents. It's brilliant and avoids the needless use of poisons that can end up in the bodies of cats and dogs, not just rats and mice. It could even end up killing children. The owl boxes are working.

However, they claim that Barn Owls will kill and eat rats. I've NEVER heard of such a thing in all my years nor have I ever observed it - not once in the wild. But they say that the female, who is 1/3 larger, will go after rats, and that one reason there's such a disparity in the size between the male and female bird of prey in general, but owls especially, is so that there's a broader range of possible prey. In my world, all barn owls, male or female, eat mice and voles, not rats. Has anyone else heard of barn owls killing live rats in the wild? I hope they are not just very anxious for it to be true, so that barn owls can solve rat problems as well as mouse problems. If they don't, they don't.

But they did relate a story of a wild female barn owl choking on a rat skull, which interested me, because we had seen that in a situation where rat carcasses were being fed to barn owls (a LONG time ago). So the female barn owl had to have gotten that rat from somewhere. It's a mystery!

Any comments?


Human Nature

I think this is probably true of most animal behavioral biologists - I find human nature to be as fascinating as animal nature, of course. After all, it follows that we are an extension of them so we must be at least as fascinating, yes? Last night I read Garrison Keillor's new book, Pontoon, and laughed so hard my stomach muscles are still aching. I also cried. The book is a brilliant portrayal of human nature. That guy really understands his people - Norwegian, Lutheran, Midwesterners. And I grew up with a bunch of Scandinavians and, of course, much of the way they are wired is the same for all of us. So I may be Irish, Mohawk Indian, Swedish, and Latvian, and from California, but the book hit home just the same.

One of my best friends growing up was Arleta. I wish she would write a book and just spew into the book, do not edit, and just put it out. She's absolutely hilarious in her outlook on life and the way she handles things. Yes, she's a little prone to violence but it's more exaggerated than one would think. Examples? Oh yea I got examples:

First day of first grade:
(Yes, I know I should be writing about wildlife, but if you don't think first grade on the playground is wildlife, think again)>

The first thing I noticed on my very first first grade recess (haha I used the word first way too many times) is that kids were clumped in a circle chanting. I went over to investigate and so did Arleta. We hadn't properly met yet but we were about to forge a bond that lasts to this day. The circle of kids was surrounding a much older mentally retarded girl named Martha, chanting horrible things using her name. Martha was sobbing helplessly in the middle with no way to get out. I was appalled. In my short life I had never witnessed anything so violent, so mean, or so crass in my life (no I was no allowed to watch television unless it was a strictly supervised educational childrens' show. Thank God.).

I ran to the teacher who was supervising the playground and urgently told her what was happening. She looked over my short head like I wasn't even there and said, "Nothin' I can do about it." Arleta ran over and tried to get the teacher to stop these savages and the teacher said the same thing. Arleta and I stared into each others' eyes in horror. Hadn't ANY of these kids been taught how to treat another human being?

That whole day took on a grayish film of horror over everything. A dark, slimy gloom penetrated everything we did from then on. I raced home from school and told my mom, who was horrified and called the principal. "Nothing we can do." he said. Arleta ran home and told her mom who called the principal, "Nothing we can do." he intoned. Arleta was standing there and asked her mom, "Why can't they do anything?" Carol, her mom, asked the principal who said, "Because there's been no violence." When Arleta heard that, she thought, "NOW I can do something about this! They need violence? Oh they'll get their violence!!"

Next day at school our eyes met across the classroom. We were going to stop this thing. I went the diplomatic route and approached every child who I thought looked like they might have half a conscience and had them in tears describing how they would feel if they had some kind of accident and ended up being tortured on the playground for the rest of their lives through no fault of their own. They pledged to reach out and become friends with the "retards" (A TERM THAT WE LEARNED FROM THE ADULTS!!!!!).

Arleta took a more direct route. She waded into the crowd of bullies and took them out one by one. I mean she clocked them. Arleta was far far far bigger than any of the other kids. She grew up early and I was far far smaller than any of the other kids. We made an excellent team between my ability to articulate the pain of others to those who would listen, and her ability to inflict the pain of others onto the noses of those who understood only the language of violence. Between us, the teasing of the "retards" ground to a halt. She had given them their violence! "NOW," Arleta said, "They HAVE to pay attention to the problem. Sheesh! And if the kids are being tormented, why are they putting them out on the playground to be eaten alive by the other kids? Why not stagger the recesses?

Why? The teachers wanted to hang out in the teacher's lounge all at the same time, that's why.

Arleta has been singlehandedly battling stupidity every since. I adore her and her sense of justice and we deeply agree on so many things. We were great friends from then on and still are.

That's the lesson they should have been teaching, but weren't, in the schools when I was a kid. The lesson of standing up to evil when you see it in your corner. We can all do that. It may seem like a little thing but it's not a little thing to the people who benefit from it. I'll never know how she knew, but Martha knew that I had helped stop the kids from teasing her, and whenever she saw me in the community she would grab her parents' arms and say in a whisper, "That's my friend! That's my friend."

I'm not tooting my own horn. I'm saying that even if you're the smallest kid in class, you can make a difference just by talking sense and changing the angle of the peer pressure that's around you. That peer pressure doesn't go away when you leave high school. One has to figure out what's important and fight for it in the way that one can, all throughout life. And others will follow, or take up the fight themselves. It's great!

Well if this seemed preachy, well ok then. So what? It surprised me how little it took to put a stop to a "tradition" that had apparently been accepted at that school for decades. It only took a few days to put an end to it. It CAN be done!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

picture of nearly grown baby barn owls from

Family of barn owls
Oh aren't they beautiful, even at this awkward stage? I love the middle one. You can see his tongue sticking out. That's hard to get in a picture, but when they clack their beaks to threaten the photographer, they first stick out their tongues! "Tongue stickout, CLACK, tongue stick out, CLACK!" That's one of the classic ways Barn Owls make their feelings about the situation quite clear. And this photographer caught it! Good Job!

Back from Seattle and San Francisco

Hi! I'm finally back and recovered from my wonderful trip to Elliot Bay Books in Lovely Seattle, and Book Passage in Vibrant San Francisco. There is SOO MUCH I want to share about so many different things that I'm going to have to spread it out over a few days or you'll feel like you're reading a book.

Simon and Schuster's Free Press sent me on a last minute jaunt to these two lovely cities on the Pacific and I'm sure glad they did. It was my first experience really being on a book tour in the way that most authors do it. I mean, yes, I did do a tour in Colorado but it was my own setup and my Mom helped pay for everything, and I also visited friends (Wendy & Don Francisco, and Cait Reed and Richard Gee).

This time it was the way I've read about, with a driver picking me up - no, not just a driver, a MEDIA ESCORT! In Seattle it was a wonderful woman named Susan who picked me up and drove me around the city to meet with booksellers at bookstores and sign the books they had in stock (this is called a "drive by signing"). Susan had arranged these meetings ahead of time, and she said that every bookstore she called responded with, "Wesley the OWL! YES! We can't keep that on the shelves! We LOVE that book!" She said this was an unusual response, so I was greatly heartened. After all, I'm a first time author and had no idea how well the book would be received!

Helpful people in my life had said things like, "Why would anybody want to read about an OWL for heaven's sake?" So I was nervous. Well, apparently a LOT of people want to read about the life, heart, soul, mind, and spirit of a magnificent, playful, passionate, opinionated barn owl! I feel like the world is full of kindred spirits now.

Seattle is the most gorgeous city! The intensity of the green and the gold and pink and other colors surprised me. The colors are so deeply saturated that the trees seem to vibrate color. The ground is covered with ferns and rich velvet grass. Puget Sound is amazing. The foliage and big trees pressed in and overhead and I felt like I was in a deep jungle, not a city!

As soon as we landed, I realized I didn't have any footwear that was at all waterproof, so I stopped in at an airport store and bought some Croc boots, with the plastic base (no holes of course) and a sheepskin-like boot. They were perfect. Light, yet waterproof, yet not bulky for packing. I have never seen Croc boots in California.

One fun thing about travelling is that in each city you find very different items for sale that you've never seen in your own city. I'd be in big trouble if I had serious spending money!

After all, I had just come from hot, dry, BROWN Southern California and sported a sunburn from doing an event outside at Wild Birds Unlimited in Huntington Beach, and the next day having an interview w/ the Orange County Register outside at Bolsa Chica Wetlands Reserve. People in S. Calif are so sick of the heat and lack of moisture that they are getting grumpy. And now we have the irritating Santa Ana winds kicking up heat and dust and static electricity from the desert and pushing the Ocean winds away, making it hotter than ever. When is fall going to come? It's October, right?

So Seattle was as refreshing as diving into a deep, snow fed pool in a High Sierra creek. Mmmmmm.

It was about 40 some degrees. I run about 30 degrees too hot, meaning that 40 degrees is perfect for me. Yes, I'm the person you see walking around in shorts and a tank top in the snow while everyone else is wearing parkas and scarves.

Because of the cold and rain, apparently, and the last minute-ness of the trip, there wasn't very much turnout at Elliot Bay Books BUT the people who came were hard core fans of barn owls and so we sat in a group and just had the most wonderful discussion!

The hotel was awesome and I would like to LIVE there.

Then it was on to San Francisco. San Francisco was vibrant with tourists and good cheer and people shopping and buying tons and tons of non-essentials, taking rides on the trolley, eating in the restaurants. Financial crisis? What financial crisis? In the west, we just don't see the down in the mouth, panicked attitude that is being reported on CNN. People are very cheerful.

On the plane people were comparing notes - but cheerfully! "I lost 97,000 dollars so far, how about you?" "Oh, I think about 60,000, BUT..." And here is the BUT:

BUT: The dollar is getting stronger, so the money I have left can buy more than the money I had last week, houses are WAAAAAAY cheaper so even if I did lose X amount of money, I can also buy a house MUCH more easily and will have a place to live. And the word was:

Don't PANIC! The people who are selling are just panicking and they're going to regret it! The people who are smart are the ones who are buying! Buy LOW, sell HIGH. So hold on and ride it out and your money will be ok if you just don't panic and sell! Just hold on and ride!

This is what people were saying. And then they were going on with their lives, standing in line to buy books, handbags, sundries, art, and were having fun trips to fun cities and were crowding onto planes to go visit their grandchildren or their relatives in Japan or whatever.

It was great to get out and talk w/ people. The streets were full in San Francisco (not in Seattle because of the weather - the first big cold snap of the season, and rain. I loved it but I guess people who lived there chose to stay in that day).

My media escort in San Francisco was a guy named Brian who used to be an editor at the Chronicle. He had a lot of interesting stories about life at the Chronicle, and he knew the city very well. We ate at a lovely Irish pub and listened to traditional Irish music, which always stirs my heart and brings me a sense of peace. After the event that night I wanted (BADLY) to go see the historic Plow and Stars, where Cait Reed and many other top Irish musicians have played. It's the real deal. But I was waaaay tooo tired. There was just no way, even though I was only a few miles from it. ARG!

I took a nap in the afternoon and no sooner had I fallen asleep than I heard military jets screaming overhead. Overhead? More like up the streets and between the buildings! I thought, "now we've done it. We've managed to work this financial crisis into a war with someone. Sheesh." I didn't panic, though. I called downstairs and they said, "Oh no, that's just the Blue Angels. They do this every year during Columbus Day weekend right over the city, between the buildings, up the streets...etc. Isn't it exciting?" Yes it was very exciting. I fell back to sleep and slept through the entire thing.

When I got up and met my driver outside there was a marching band playing. "Do you always arrange for authors to get a marching band to welcome them when they wake up from their nap?" I asked him. haha.

This hotel was amazing, too. Each room was designed specially by an interior designer/artist, and on each floor was an alcove in the wall with a quote from a famous author written in it. Downstairs was a library with books from all the authors who had stayed there before. It was the Hotel Rex on Sutton street. Staff members (the guy at the desk, the concierge, etc.) were actually reading my book! I was impressed by that, needless to say. That is definitely "going the extra mile for the customer"!

The event in San Francisco at Book Passage was well attended and most everyone there had not only already bought the book, but had read it. One woman had read it 4 times through and had her questions pre-prepared! So I skipped the reading and just talked about what I had learned and experienced with Wesley. The people from Hungry Owl were there. They have a webcam in an owl box and they provide owl box plans for people all over the country. They have barn owl boxes all over the city and we compared stories, so the talk became more of a round table discussion toward the end.

They had seen the same phenomenon of a barn owl choking on a rat skull that I talked about in the book. This was a wild barn owl but they had a webcam on her and they started getting emails that she hadn't moved in several hours. So one of their climbers went up and found the mother dead. They took the babies and rehabbed them for the wild. The necropsy on the mother revealed a rat skull embedded in her esophagus. Even though they have a separate tube for breathing, the owl stresses out and drools and tries and tries to get at the skull and aspirates the drool and finally dies of stress.

I contended that barn owls don't hunt rats, which is what brought this story up. She must have hunted a rat to have one in her esophagus! They posited that perhaps because the female is so much bigger, she is able to hunt rats. I have never seen such a thing and no one else I know has seen this. Barn owls hunt mice and voles, with occasional small birds in the mix. Rats? I don't know how they could kill one. Maybe they will eat a dead rat, but they don't usually eat carrion.

It's a mystery all right!

So much to say but I have to spread it out so more tomorrow! I apologize for how long it's taken for me to get my blogging together but I will really really try to blog every day from now on!

I simply must write more about the goings on at Book Passage because there were some fascinating discussions. Oh well, I'll write it now:

I met a tiny little girl, barely 4 years old, who had a stuffed owl collection from Steiff. She told me she calls herself Miss Bee, and considers herself to be most like the burrowing owl. She wants to become a vet and work with owls. I told her about Jane Goodall, who knew from the time she was in the crib that she wanted to live in a jungle in Africa and work with apes and that's exactly what she ended up doing. She still carries the stuffed chimpanzee that she had in the crib! This little girl's parents were so supportive and took her seriously, as they should. She could read already, of course. I wasn't surprised. If you're slanted that way, you will learn to read early! My sis and I learned to read when we were 2 years old, because we were already passionate about books from watching our parents read and from them reading to us constantly. It really made me feel good to see a child so young who was already so passionate and interested in learning. They are, you know. All one has to do is take them seriously and encourage them and pay attention! Don't set them up in front of the TV for your own convenience, in other words.

And then after everyone left, Hannah at Book Passage gave me a very thoughtful gift of personally embossed stationery, AND Mary (I think it was Mary) gave me a cardboard standup drawing of Wesley signing his name in a book. It was such an accurate portrayal of Wesley's look and attitude that I could hardly believe it! This woman has TALENT!

The Book Passage people were just so amazing. They are even excited about the Baby Wesley the Owl stuffed animal that will be available before Christmas. It's designed by Wendy Francisco and based on Wesley at the age he was on the cover of the book - the cutest age for a barn owl, I think.

Whew! When I got back, everyone said I was glowing. Well no wonder!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

New York Times Best Seller!!

This is Wendy Francisco - Stacey is zooming off to an interview and wanted me to tell you she INTENDS to keep the blog up from now on...but things have been crazy. So, many apologies. Wesley The Owl entered the New York Times Best Seller list last week at #13! It fell to #26 when booksellers ran out of books. But it's back in the stores!

People Magazine did publish a review in September. They gave the book 4 stars and said it was "irresistible".

We are thrilled to see Wesley's story being published all over the world and in many languages. Stacey will be in Seattle and San Francisco next week giving talks and signing books. We will be posting the info for those events on the site.