Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Need one undeniable reason to keep elephants out of zoos? Find the babies.

In light of the untimely death of Watoto, the Woodland Park Zoo African Elephant, if you want one undeniable reason why they don’t belong in zoos, just look to nature.  

Last month during a visit to a South African wildlife reserve, my husband and I encountered an entire herd of elephants (roughly 25-30 animals). Immediately, my thoughts went to Watoto, Bamboo & Chai on the other side of the world. As this herd of animals walked within 3 feet of our jeep, I felt a majesty and presence that I have never felt before. Looking in their eyes they were neither afraid nor aggressive, they were just on their way to a watering hole.  And within the herd we saw no less than 5 babies.  Five.  I recalled that Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo had unsuccessfully tried to artificially inseminate Chai (the Asian female elephant) over 100 times. The juxtaposition of these facts delighted me and angered me like the churning of storm clouds. 

Update 8/26 PM: I just read that a male elephant was born over the weekend at the game reserve we visited. Congrats!

Covering over 22,000 acres, you couldn’t even see the far end of the reserve and in between there were lush valleys, vast savannah, dense forest and a river running through the whole thing.  Miles of lone dirt roads crossed the reserve like an intricate system of veins used by the jeeps, elephants and other large wildlife.

On the reserve, when you looked into the eyes of these animals, there was “someone home.”  There was a liveliness, a completeness.  But when looking into the eyes of animals in a zoo, especially the elephants, big cats and primates--you’ve seen it--they are typically lethargic, sleepy or sometimes displaying odd behaviors (rocking, pacing).  Ridiculously small enclosures push them up toward the front so that hordes of ‘zooligans’ can bang on the plexiglass and have a moment with these animals who are shells of what they could be.  When I see this, I’m overcome with sadness because the truth is, these animals now exist for entertainment. But maybe the more appropriate way to think of these animals is that they are 'tributes' or sacrifices for their species. Since people use the reasoning that you have to see an animal to have a sensitivity to it, these captive representatives are ‘taking one for the team.’  They’ll forgo a natural life so that the human masses might have compassion for the rest of them.  

Once returning back to the US, we immediately traveled with the kids to San Diego for a wedding celebration, taking place at the San Diego Zoo. We easily saw through the artificial constructs designed to make visitors think that the enclosures are much like their real habitats. Even pre-recorded ambient animals sounds, piped through outdoor speakers, were stealthily hidden throughout the zoo.  When my husband, our kids and I warily approached the elephant enclosure, I braced myself for what we might see.  Granted, this elephant enclosure was larger than Woodland Park’s and had more “interactive elements” for the animals but one of its resident pachyderms stood swaying on a concrete slab, a tell-tale sign of an unhappy and/or sick animal. I felt a lump in my throat then, as I do now, recalling the stunned and unseeing look in that elephant’s eyes. 

I think of Watoto dying young and never really knowing what it is to roam. I think of the African herd prospering and their 5 vivacious new babies. I think of Woodland Park’s antiquated stance on elephant captivity for the sake of nothing but revenue and prestige. And I think of the indisputable truth that we all know in our heart of hearts: that elephants don’t belong in a zoo.


(All photos taken by Kali Sakai at Kariega Game Reserve, South Africa.)

For more information about the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, check out this video.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

About that Trip to South Africa...

During Discovery's Shark Week 2001, I watched a program called Air Jaws.  The show documented the South African Great White Sharks that launch themselves out of the water to hunt seals.  Up until that point in my life of avidly watching shark documentaries and being a decent shark aficionado, I had never heard of (let alone seen) such behavior. So as the first few sharks leaped out of the water on screen, I stood up in my empty living room, pointed at the TV and screamed, "I am so going there someday!"

~13 years pass~

Our journey to South Africa this past July involved a lot of planning, multitudes of logistics and heaps of grandparent karma as we would be leaving the children behind. As a result, we observed wild animals in native habitats during a boundary-pushing, comfort zone smashing, epic adventure. 

Here are 10 Highlights from the Other Side of the World...

1. Meeting Chris and Monique Fallows
One of the men who studied and tracked these amazing South African sharks was none other than Chris Fallows, featured extensively in Air Jaws and the sequels. He and his wife, Monique, are the co-purveyors of APEX Shark Expeditions.  It was like meeting shark celebrities.

2. Cage Diving with Great White Sharks
I'd describe South Africa as complex, picturesque and politically fascinating place but honestly seeing the Great White Sharks were the MAIN reason we went there. Well, that, and wanting to do something completely wild and crazy to celebrate my 40th. (Mission accomplished!) We went out on the boat at total of 4 times: having 3 cage dives and 1 predation trip.  The weather wasn't very warm (it's their winter) but the sharks were magnificent.  This video is the culmination of all those trips. 
[Be sure to watch this video in 1080p HD, available in the settings drop down.]

3. Throttling One's Fear of Foreign Places
When diving with Great White Sharks seems like the least dangerous aspect of your trip, you really have to wonder. You know that thing when you read a bunch of travel books and the State Department advisory webpage and they basically say you're a big dummy to go travel around in this country? The reasons: "a very high level of crime," "one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the world" and "several US citizens have been robbed at gun point" while "car jackings and thefts from cars are serious problems." Yes, that's not anxiety-making at all. But a number of close friends had just traveled to the Cape Town area with no experiences like that. Obviously we had to keep our guard up and be vigilant but nothing bad happened. Also APEX made all of our travel arrangements through reputable businesses and we always had cars with drivers--never taxies or public transport. The two places we stayed in (Simon's Town and Kariega Game Reserve) were very safe and secure. However on our first full day in country in Simon's Town, we heard machine gun fire. For 30 minutes, we were freaking out in our room and I began to mentally beat myself up for getting us into this mess. Finally we just called our B&B host and emailed the APEX office manager about it...

4. Land Animal Experience: Penguins that Sound like Jackasses
Seeing (and hearing) is believing. These guys are specific to South Africa and make donkey sounds! There is an elevated wooden walkway to view them from so that you don't disturb their nests or general ambling around. It was pretty spectacular how many there were and how freely they came and went. But don't even think of snatching one of these as a trip souvenir. They are biters and will seriously hurt you--at least that was what the sign said.

5. Baboon on a Hot Tin Roof
These animals are fine to humans as long as you don’t have food.  But the most dangerous place is between a Baboon and some food. We heard some horrific stories of what baboons will do to people (bite mostly) if you have something they want. The baboons have human minders who alert travelers to their presence and are in charge of trying to keeping them off the roads so they don’t get hit.  One of these guys encouraged people to get out of our car and take pics of the baboons, especially because one had hopped up on the roof of our van.  

6. Land Animal Experience: Eagle Encounter & Bird Rehab Center
Eagle Encounters--a sanctuary and rehabilitation facility for birds of prey--was on-property of one of the wineries we visited and they let you get very close to the birds.  You can even put on a glove and have some owls fly to your hand.  Or you can pet some little owls.  They have gigantic eagles and falcons.  All of these birds were rescued from dire situations or have been injured.  One can tell the people there really love and care about the animals.  Their reintroduction into the wild rate is 65%.  One of the folks there, a 15-year-old volunteer named Cameron, showed us around and told us that he hoped to be a wildlife vet and work at one of the big game reserves one day.  He knew everything about the birds and clearly loved each one of them. It was so impressive to see someone that young know their passion and to take initiative to ramp up in such a way.  He also showed us a boa constrictor, lizards and owl chicks. But partway through visiting Eagle Encounters, the wind and the rain came down in epic proportions and all the birds had to be taken inside.

Young Cameron and an owl buddy
A boa named Charlie

7. King of the Reserve
Kariega Game Reserve is a gigantic 9000 hectares (roughly 22,240 acres).  Our guide Louis picked us up in the open air modified Land Cruiser that would be our jeep for the duration.  I love this vehicle.  It’s amazing in the Bush and rides like a dream. When we came across the lion, he was seemingly looking for the rest of his family. But, being that close to a predator in an open-air jeep, well it certainly gives you pause and elicits a ton of respect.

He eventually found his family and we spotted them together a few days later.
A funny thing: I don't have a picture of this but I remember one day we saw a house cat out on the reserve because the manager of the reserve lives onsite. It struck me as the weirdest sight because the cat looked totally out of place with Bless Buck, Wildebeest and Impala all wandering around behind it. But I bet that cat felt super-stoked given the crowd he got to run with.

8. Stealthy Sipper: Rogue Giraffe
The biggest surprise of the trip is when we caught this curious guy taking a drink out of our little pool on our patio. Animals are not allowed in the chalet area where people stay. There is a fence surround and a large gate leading to the lodge & chalets but it stays open during the day for the jeeps. Despite that, this guy wandered inside and from of all the chalets he could have chosen, we were the lucky ones. That water is much too cold for us to swim in so they don't put chemicals in it during the winter. So I'm sure the water was better tasting then the water hole.

"This is what I think of you..."

9. Elephants, Elephants, Elephants
Ken and I couldn't get over all the baby elephants.  There were at least 5 wee ones and 5-7 youngsters of varying age & size.  The herd consisted of probably 25-30 animals and one day we came across almost all of them on their way to a watering hole.  If I had ever doubted before, you can see when looking at these elephants that they are calm, happy and living as elephants should.  We sat stunned as the huge matriarch marched by, within a few feet of the jeep.  To see such large animals at close distance and to feel them go about their business unthreatened and unstressed just made my life.  We circled back to the watering hole where almost all of the elephants had gathered and just let it all sink in. 

This is a 3-minute video of the safari adventure with a sampling of the animals we observed. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing these animals in a natural habitat and being themselves.

10. Uninterrupted time with this guy
We left the kids in Portland with my family and by virtue of the preparation I did, the kind of people my folks are and how adaptable the kids were, we had no worries after settling in that everyone was doing great at home. That allowed Ken and me to relax and focus on our vacation. But despite having no children with us, we still had to get up early and be on a schedule (sad trombone). Since the animals wouldn't wait for us to leisurely rise at 9 am, we got up by 6:30AM almost everyday. Nevertheless, Ken and I got to spend 2 whole weeks hanging out with each other and just being a couple again. And as a bonus, we didn't once have to choose a restaurant based on if they served mac & cheese.

'MVPs' of our Trip:
  • QuickPod Stick Camera Mount for the GoPro Video Camera--some of the best shots in and out of the water came from having this mount 
  • Columbia Hiking Pants--I almost didn't bring wind blocking pants. Wow, that would have been a mistake. On the water and in the jeep, I needed this feature big time. I think I wore these pants almost every day I was in Africa.
  • Bonine (motion sick med)--the one day we didn't take our medicine it was BAD. But when we did, happy happy joy joy with hearts and flowers no nausea (plus a few yawns--just take 1/2 a pill the night before & 1/2 the morning you go out)
  • Columbia Fleece Jacket--Did I mention it was their winter? We layered up constantly and I was so glad I had a fleece with me. Wore this everyday.
  • International Outlet Adapters (one for each of us) We were either charging our smartphones or tapping on our computers. Going to the other side of the planet necessitated accessibility.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

So What's This Thing About Sharks?

You may have noticed from the blog header and blog posts that I have a deep and abiding love of sharks. As an adult, I've come to see them as an important part of the marine ecosystem, an APEX predator that has diminished in numbers due to superstition, fear and human ignorance. The sleek efficient form of the shark stayed virtually the same for a hundred million years with over 400 species of sharks now swimming around on our humble planet. 

But how they piqued my interest was much less heady and for that we're going to have to go back--way back.  It all started (for better or worse) when I watched Jaws on TV at the age of 7. 

While it temporarily traumatized me and made me nervous to swim in a pool or even sit on a toilet without looking down the whole time, I couldn't get over this mysterious animal. I think sometimes when you fear something so much, it flips over and you start to embrace it because fear is fascinating.

I was so enthralled that I asked for Jaws on my 8th birthday cake (and for several years thereafter).

Cake from 1982
When I was 21, it only seemed fitting to have my one and only tattoo be a symbol of the thing I found most intriguing and continually relevant...

In 2007, I saw my first Great White Shark with my own eyes when Ken and I wandered into the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  We were in the Bay Area for work at the time and didn't even know they had a juvenile male in the aquarium.  I was beyond excited! A fisherman had snagged him in his net and in the process the young shark had been injured.  The aquarium took him in for rehabilitation (and then released him a year later). My initial post about the experience is HERE.  Transfixed, I just watched him swim around the tank and hoped that one day I would see his bigger kin with my own eyes as well.

But after we had kids, the dream of actually seeing sharks in the wild seemed nearly impossible. Even though sharky things kept popping up....

2010 Shark photo-bomb at Maui Aquarium
Halloween, Sidney 2010
Halloween, Calvin 2013
Best store entrance EVER, Sharky's in Ocean Shores, WA
My 40th Birthday Cake,
courtesy of the Wallers & Morfey's Cakes
It's become a fun thing where friends will forward or share anything sharkworthy (stories/pictures) with me. But I still couldn't help but want something more.  This got my wheels turning last summer which lead to big plans...