Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

From a zoo in Shenzhen Province, China (via The Telegraph.)

May this year bring greater respect, understanding, and empathy for all living creatures on the earth.
Happy 2012!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Master of Camouflage Stirs Things Up

Nothing quite compares to the octopus when it comes to camouflage. Over at Science Blogs, Greg Laden posted this amazing video. Like the man in the video, I had to watch the slow motion replay before I believed this wasn't some kind of trick of the film maker. Check this out!

Isn't that incredible? The common octopus uses a network of pigment cells and specialized muscles in it's skin to blend into its surroundings. It can assess its surroundings and change to blend in seconds so it can literally hide in plain sight. And the ink it ejects if spotted not only obscures the predator's view, but also dulls the predator's sense of smell so the octopus has a better chance of escape. But the octopus doesn't just rely on its camouflage to save it. It also has a wicked jaw that can deliver a vicious bite and venomous saliva to boot. And, as if that weren't enough, it possesses a keen intelligence.

Octopuses have long been thought of as the most intelligent of all the invertebrates, but recent studies by researchers like Jennifer Mather are proving that they are quite capable of problem solving, tool use, heck they even exhibit play behaviors. This ranks them right up there with the most intelligent beings on earth. In fact, they are causing quite a stir, since octopuses are asocial beings. So, proof of their intelligence sort of blows Nicholas Humphrey's social theory of intelligence out of the water. The original theory was expanded to argue animal intelligence by esteemed researchers like Jane Goodall, who posit that the need for intelligence in "higher mammals" like chimpanzees and elephants, for instance, is due to their social structures.

So, the octopus is stirring up the cognitive studies world and forcing researchers to rethink long-standing false assumptions, such as the notion that something must be human-like in some way, possess social skills and humanistic qualities, to have smarts. Not so much. Yet another reason for me to admire the octopus.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Because I can always count on them for the latest and greatest information on all things bird, I am happy to support The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you have not already learned this about me, I am a total bird geek. Give me a pair of binoculars, a spotting scope, and some camouflage, and I can be happy hiking for days following my ears to the next glimpse of some fantastic feathered friend. I even worked in an aviary with tropical forest birds for many years. The photo is of me helping my curator band a Blue Crowned Hanging Parrot, one of the smallest parrots in the world.

Last year's best holiday gift was Cornell Lab's Bird Songs Bible, which plays the birds' songs so you can hear them as you look up their information. 

Cornell Lab's overall mission is to "interpret and conserve the earth's biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds." Here is what John Fitzpatrick, their current director, has to say about their work. “Daily, every person under this roof is committed to focusing our unique resources, our ingenuity, and our appreciation of nature toward studying and teaching about the living earth.” 

By way of a thank you this year, Cornell Lab sent out a lovely video to their members. I thought I would share it so you can see some of the amazing things they film and study. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Very Merry Zooliday!

One of my favorite things to do when I worked as a zookeeper was create fun things to give my animals for enrichment. Because captive animals are often bored in their enclosures, zookeepers spend a good portion of every day trying out different things to keep them entertained, active, and healthy. The holiday season provides all kinds of opportunities for the animals and keepers alike to get into the festive spirit. So, I thought I would share some photos from zoos around the world to show you what some of the animals have been up to.

Over at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, they've been hosting a holiday enrichment fest for their animals for several years. Here are a few of their posted photos -

Here's a photo by Rick Stevens of Bethyl, Taronga's elderly Kodiak Bear checking out her fun new toy -

And at the Belfast Zoo, the primates are enjoying their visit from Saint Nicholas a little early this year -

And stateside, at the Wildwood Wildlife Park, in Marshfield, Wisconsin, a cougar decided his presents were offensive, but he had fun shredding them -

At the North Carolina Zoo, we used to gather all of the Christmas trees after the holidays were over and give them to the animals as enrichment. Sadly, I can't seem to find any of those photos. All you zoo peeps, if you have some fun holiday images you'd be willing to post, please email them.

I hope you and all your loved ones, including the fur-covered variety, have a wonderful holidays.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Animal Magnetism

Annette Swofer's got it, apparently. She came home over the weekend in Tauranga, New Zealand to find a visiting baby seal sleeping on her couch. And this seal strayed quite a ways from it's mother to visit with Annette, crossing a busy street, climbing some stairs, and entering through the cat door in her kitchen.

Annette says she thought she was hallucinating at first, and she didn't really know what kind of animal it was, only that it wasn't a cat or a dog because it had flippers. She asked her friend to be sure she wasn't seeing things, and seemed relieved to find he could see it, too.

In an article at The Mary Sue, she was quoted as saying, "It's kind of like finding an elephant in your house." Actually, Annette, it's really not at all like that, but thanks for making me laugh -a lot. And thanks for calling the animal rescue people who returned the pup to its natural habitat. You can find more about this over at Huffington Post.

And speaking of people with animal magnetism, Cornell University's Round Robin posted a lovely article on the new Chris Linder book, Science On Ice. I am very excited about this book. I'll admit it's mostly because of the fantastic photographer, because I love his work. Although, I am also interested in the project's findings and the story of this amazing group of scientists who braved the elements of the Antarctica to study the Adelie Penguins. They nest on the world's largest glacier. Here is a fantastic video on their adventure. How could I resist a penguin video? Perhaps it should be said that penguins and baby seals possess human magnetism.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dog Diva on the Catwalk

When I heard the fantastic photographer Lisa Pitcher was calling for models for her fine arts shoot, I was thrilled. I never thought I'd be one of those moms who would gladly turn their kid into a diva to live vicariously. Well, I am. Of course, if you know me, you know my kids are all of the fur-covered variety. So, Miss Cinco de Mayo, who in all honesty was already a doggy diva, found herself volunteered for a turn on the catwalk.

I wasn't really sure how she would respond to this, since she is typically a little worry wart. Plus, she doesn't really care for me pointing my camera in her direction. But, Lisa not only has the eye, but also the touch for easing her subjects and capturing their personalities. In her own words, Lisa describes her photographic vision:

"I am not interested in using my camera to merely document a subject, I am always looking for avenues to peel off the obvious and reveal with my lens the emotional heart of the subject. Light, angle, colors, depth of field- I utilize all of these to capture what makes that person/animal who they are."

So, with the help of various treats and a whole lot of "You're the star" treatment, Cinco is now certainly poised to become the first Canine Vogue cover girl! Thanks to Lisa Pitcher for immortalizing my Cinco and for agreeing to share her images here. I highly recommend you visit her website and take a look at her other portraits!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How to Have a Doggone Good Time!

The Dog Days of Summer might be behind us, but here in the mountains of Virginia, it's been unseasonably warm. As the pet sitter extraordinaire, I've enjoyed these last few weeks immensely. The only complaint I might voice is the annual practice by so many of burning leaves. I'm terribly allergic to oak.

But instead of complaining, I'd like to introduce you to Xena and Daisy (aka Xena and Gabrielle, because, really, why would you have a Xena without a Gabrielle?) These warrior princess beagles would like to remind everyone how much fun can be had in a good pile of leaves. Just rake them all into one place, and voila, you've got yourself a doggone good time!

Plus, for all you adult types who feel you need a rational reason for doing this, you can pile them up at the bases of trees and bushes and in your flower beds to serve as a winter mulch. You'll probably find fewer weeds to pull in the spring if you do. Or, if you're like me, you can rake them into the surrounding woods and let the local wildlife bed down in them, too.

Burning leaves really is quite toxic for everyone, not just those of us with allergies. Did you know that leaf burning will actually eat the paint off your house. Here's more information from those who know far more about it than me. So, consider letting nature take it's course. Leaf litter will break down naturally and return all kinds of good nutrients to the soil.

Best of all, you get the added bonus of hours of fun for everyone! Xena and "Gabrielle" sure have been entertaining me daily.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Who is Protected by Protect IP?

Today's spotlight video on Youtube was the fantastic Disney classic animated short Steamboat Willie.

I hope you will enjoy watching it. But, before you do, please realize that the time for watching many of the things you enjoy online may be coming to a rapid, and if your not paying attention, unexpected close. And, if you want to keep your internet freedom so you can enjoy music, television, movies, and art online, not to mention freedom of speech, you will need to read on and consider helping in the fight to keep internet censorship from happening.

So, now that you've had some fun, let me focus you on The Protect IP Act and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) getting ready to come before Congress. Neither act is worded as internet censorship, but trust me, the potential is there. Though, on the surface, they may seem like a good idea, you must look deeper and ask yourself just who is protected by this act, and do we want to hand that kind of power to large corporations like Disney? We would be giving large entertainment corporations, and our government, the power to close internet sights down, and due to the wording of these acts, close them down for a whole lot more than "piracy" of "intellectual property." So, please, take some time to check out Fight for our Future, and then join me in helping to spread the word to others.

Our elected officials need to know that the voting public does not agree! Most of all, please, if you enjoy the internet, things like reading blogs, sharing with your friends on social media, and online entertainment, don't assume this does not effect you, because it does! I promise you won't like the results if you sit back and do nothing, even if you are one of the artists these acts are professing to protect! Fight for the Future website makes it easy for you. Just follow the simple steps over there, and thanks for helping.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Baby Okapi at the Bronx Zoo

The newest arrival at the Bronx Zoo is making her public debut. According to, the new baby okapi will be on exhibit intermittently, weather permitting. If you don't know what an okapi is, don't worry, you are not alone. Let me show you a couple pictures of Bambesa and her calf Safarani, two out of the thirteen of this rare species that I cared for back at the start of my zoo career. They are often called Forest Giraffes, from the Ituri Forest in the Republic of the Congo. They were not officially described to western science until 1901. Sir Johnston, by then, had spent some ten years trying to see a live one in the Ituri forest. They are a silent, illusive species of the deep jungle. The only sound they make regularly is a chuff, which sounds like a quiet cough. Interestingly, I was part of a team that, with the help of equipment from NASA, recorded and took data on okapi calls, which were discovered to be infrasonic, meaning the majority of the call is too low to be discernable to the human ear, but can travel for miles and penetrate the thickest of jungle foilage. I find this fascinating.

Bambesa was one of my favorite okapis. Why? Well, she was only friendly to certain people, and she liked me. The feeling was entirly mutual. These amazing animals are called Forest Giraffes because they are actually cousins to the giraffe. You might not notice the similarity, but the males have skin-covered horns like a giraffe and they have those long, prehensile blue tongues that can strip a branch of leaves in a heartbeat and are long enough to clean out their own ears and eyes, which is one of those gross things you can't stop watching if you have the chance to see it.

I never expected to fall for these creatures, but they quickly became one of my favorite animals. I feel incredibly honored to have cared for them, to have run my hands over their velvety coats, to have fed them their favorite things - oatmeal and onions, believe it or not. Kawnini, who I am pictured with here, was a complete sucker for onions.

She, like Bambesa, really loved to have her ears cleaned out. They were both kind of like dogs when you had a swab in their ears. They made this funny smile-like face and I fully expected their back legs to start spontaneously kicking. In fact, each okapi I cared for had their own distinct personality. Where Kwanini and Keowe were both laid back and happy to be rubbed, Safarani, the calf above, was prone to rearing up and kicking at you with her front legs if startled, and Katala would run you over for fun if given half a chance. She was a hand full. Bambesa was only friendly if she was in the mood and she liked you. All in all, days getting to know a barn full of these lovely animals was never dull. No, indeed, I can't complain of having led a boring life.

Anyway, in honor of the fabulousness that is okapi, I would like to officially congratulate the Bronx Zoo okapi keepers and the mother okapi, who survived a 14 month gestation to give birth. I hope they both enjoy continued health and a long, happy life. If you live near the Bronx Zoo, I highly recommend you call in advance this time of year before you trek out to see the baby. These are an African rainforest species, after all. They cannot handle much of the New York cold. In the meantime, courtesy of, here is a recent video of the new baby enjoying her exhibit.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bonding With Hondo

As a celebration for turning in my final draft of my thesis paper to the professors today (go me!), I am posting a small portion of the paper here, one of the short stories about my time at the zoo. The Image is a sketch of a painting in progress which goes with this story. Hope you enjoy!

Hondo was one of the largest chimps I had ever seen. A commanding male, he ruled his troupe at the North Carolina Zoo with a king’s presence. On more than one occasion, when Hondo was taking out his frustrations on his unruly family, I watched from a distance in absolute terror of his power and the expressions of anger and hostility on his face. I had to work very hard not to show him my fear, but somehow Hondo knew, and he seemed to relish finding new and interesting ways to scare me. He made loud noises, threw things, or spit on me. We shared a mutual dislike that I think was caused by a mutual misunderstanding of each other.

I made numerous mistakes with Hondo in the early days of our acquaintance. I avoided him and never gave him a proper and respectful greeting as troupe leader. I also had a difficult time masking my frustrations with him as our relationship deteriorated, and although I tried hard not to react, I had a hard time schooling my facial expressions. I made my dislike clear in a hundred small ways, like lifting my eyebrows or creasing my brow. Then along came Hondo’s offspring, Jonathan, and my relationship with Hondo changed drastically.

Jonathan chimp was born to a first-time mother, who was unable to nurse him. In the absence of another nursing female, the choice was made to hand-raise him. But because the regular chimp staff was short-handed, the non-primate keepers in the park, such as me, were asked to volunteer time to help feed him. Of course, I jumped at the chance to cuddle a baby chimp.

Jonathan was a tiny thing with enormous ears twice the size of a normal chimp. We fed and cared for Jonathan in the cage adjoining the troupe to help teach the females care skills by watching us. This minimal contact would also help integrate Jonathan back into the troupe when he was weaned. I was extremely nervous about entering the cage next door with only a large, metal grate separating me from Hondo and the others. So on the first day, I hesitantly walked in and sat in the plastic chair beside the mesh, waiting for the keepers to bring Jonathan and his bottle to me.

I remember distinctly being grateful that the chimp troupe was outside and none of them seemed to notice me. I had visions of the amount of spit and urine I would have to shower off myself before the afternoon was through. But, when they placed that tiny, furry chimp boy in my arms, none of that mattered. I was completely spellbound by his little, pink hands that grasped at my fingers just like a human infant, and his beautiful little face framed by those ginormous ears. He gazed up at me with saucer-sized eyes and took the bottle for me right away. I felt this sense of peace fill me up, and I rocked him gently while he ate. I was bent forward over the baby crooning to him, encouraging him to keep eating, when I felt something on my neck, blowing my long hair.

A chill shot down my spine when I looked up to find Hondo seated with his side pressed up against the mesh cage door. I had to fight the urge to jump up and run. The only thing that kept me planted in my chair was worry that the precious baby would be frightened. When I looked back at the baby, Hondo blew gently at my hair again, and I realized he was blowing my hair out of the way to see the baby. I moved my hair back behind my shoulder and sat up straighter. I did this mostly so I could watch Hondo out of the corner of my eye.

Hondo remained quiet and my heart rate eventually slowed to normal. I opted to turn my chair and move it closer to the mesh bars. The look of surprise on Hondo’s face was something to behold. I don’t think the other keepers had offered to bring the baby closer to him, or perhaps he had not asked since he already trusted them. Regardless, my decision changed our entire relationship.

It became normal for Hondo to meet me whenever I was feeding the baby. We even sat with our shoulders touching against the mesh sometimes, once I learned to trust that he would not grab at my hair or pinch me through the bars. Hondo never again treated me with anything less than respect and affection. We eventually graduated to grooming each other through the bars, which indicated that he accepted me as a member to his troupe. I often brought him treats, and he sometimes brought me items too, things he found in his exhibit. Hondo gave me a rock one day. That piece of slate is one of the greatest gifts I ever received, more precious to me than any gemstone.

In all the years since, I am never forgotten by either Hondo or Jonathan. No matter how much I changed, every time I visit the zoo both males come across their large exhibit to greet me with obvious joy. The zoo visitors often find it exciting that the chimps know me, particularly when Jonathan throws his arms out and gives me a mock hug and kiss against the glass like he used to do as a child. Every time this happens, I feel a tightening in my gut that we can never again hug, and I remember how he would let me rock him to sleep with his head on my shoulder. But the boy has grown to nearly Hondo’s size, so we must be separated by bars, glass, and fences now. I realize this is best for my safety as well as his, but it doesn’t stop the longing or the sadness.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

It's All About the Attitude

Yesterday, I rescued a bat. Apparently, he came into my art studio building from the attic several days earlier while the owner was storing boxes. The little guy squeezed himself up into a corner above the picture hanging rail in our gallery hall. He had to hook his little legs around the rail and hide his face against the corner to sleep with all the light pouring in from the huge, warehouse style windows. Nobody seemed to know how long he'd been there, stuck among the art with one single fly (I really hope he ate that pesky bastard) and no water. So, I broke out the old animal nets and borrowed a pair of work gloves (that will never be the same) from Gene. I'll admit, the whole thing made me miss the zoo just a little.

The net proved to be useless thanks to the corner situation. But, I was able to sneak up a ladder and put my hand right over the sleeping ball of brown fur. Immediately, he starting bitching. Loud! And, of course he dug his teeth into the leather and pee'd all over it. I don't think Gene is going to be too happy to get his gloves back. Of course, I was not surprised by the initial attitude, and this is hardly the first time I've been pee'd on. (Remember peeps, a zookeeping job sounds fun until you think about all those bodily functions you have to clean up. Some of the animals like to throw it at you, too.) So, I held on tight and carried the little guy outside where he could return to his family in the attic.

What I didn't expect was the attitude I got when I let him go. The feisty, little booger just sat there on my glove, all his teeth bared, and bitched at me for at least two minutes before he finally flew off. He definitely subscribes to that "if you're small and cornered just act crazy" school of thought. He had some big attitude packed in a cute, little package. Now that I've gotten to know him, I think he's my kind of bat.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Etsy, Here Comes Earth Art By Amanda!

Yes indeed! I finally got myself in gear and opened my new Etsy site, Earth Art by Amanda, my first little online shop to sell my art and jewelry. So far, I have only worked on posting the beach glass jewelry to it, but eventually, I plan to have several pages which will also include my paintings, drawings, and photography. First, however, I have to work towards getting better photos taken of my jewelry.

Where I am good, but not yet great, at photographing nature and animals, I seem to be not so good, and definitely not great at photographing jewelry. People who can take pictures of small, inanimate objects and make them look fantastic have a whole new respect in my book.

I am planning to recreate a beach scene and try putting my jewelry into it. Then, I can photograph it like I do when I find something in nature, and perhaps it will turn out better. I'll keep you posted. Or better yet, you can make frequent visits to my new etsy shop, Earth Art by Amanda to see for yourself if the new pictures are up. For now, they are just boring images of each necklace on a black, velvet board.

Still, the new logo and banner rock the house. Thanks so much to my friends Gene Bjerke and Poet Miller for helping me design these out of one of my paintings. Thanks also to Poet, and her Mom Andi Miller, for pretty much walking me through setting up shop. It's good to have friends who know computers, cause I seem to have some glitches in my system. No, not the computer, the brain. It short circuits when a computer enters the loop.

In related news, I am now an official sponsor to The Oceanic Society and you can view this on their upcoming conference page here. Thanks to all of you peeps who purchased jewelry in the past year to help me sponsor such a great cause. Its good to know others are willing and ready to help, even in small ways, in the effort to clean up our seashores and oceans. Pass on the need and who knows, maybe someone else will join the effort and start picking up the beaches and making art out of it. Stranger things have happened.