I already wrote about how poorly I think the Oscars have been doing on the best picture choices for the last few years, so I won’t cover that ground again. This year I’ve only seen one of the nominees, but it was a good one — “Descendants”.

As I was watching it, it occurred to me that George Clooney’s character was in a really complicated situation, one so convoluted it seemed that only a good novelist could create it. Well what d’ya know, screenplay adopted from a novel. The characters were beautifully developed and Clooney did a good job letting us read his emotions as he faced one challenging plot turn and difficult confrontation after another. The role of the older daughter was as sympathetic as his, and equally well-acted. Neat to see Kaui’i from a movie maker’s perspective as my wife and I were there in 1990 and recognized much of what we saw on camera.

Saw “YA” a couple of weeks ago and really liked the way Charlize Theron’s character slowly self-destructed. It was apparent that she was headed for a bad confrontation at a suburban barbecue, and it was so well done: cataclysmic without being over the top. Patton Oswald nailed his depiction of a jaded, handicapped former schoolmate and who better to handle dark humor than Oswald? Also, as I’ve just epublished a YA novel (snowmobilewerewolf.com) and  Theron’s role was YA writer, her travails rang true, especially when discussions about dwindling market and appealing to high school students came up.

Got “The Kids Are All Right” on Netflix and was very impressed: if I’d seen it in time last year I’d have wanted it to win best picture. Unlike the previous two films I mentioned, this is more a star-driven vehicle with the three central roles belonging to big names. Particularly liked the plot moving forward by the use of camera shots more than dialogue. When Annette Bening does her detective work the proof is in the picture, and her tightening lips and narrowing eyes show her reaction clearly. I’ve always like Mark Ruffalo as well, so having him on screen a lot was a treat.

Continuing backward in time I saw that Ed Burns had directed a film and watched it on TV. It’s called “Nice Guy Johnny” and the title character is a sports radio host. Burns plays a real cad and does a capable job of it, but it was fun to think that he was telling the camerman what to shoot and counseling the actors between his takes. Clooney directs, Burns directs,  — seems like the cliche about actors might be true: what they really want to do is direct! It’s great to watch films with my wife to get the female perspective. She had a take on this one that was unlike mine but definitely loud and clear: the lead actor was not a leading man type therefore the plot was unbelieveable. I have to admit she had a point. The man in question is probably 5’5″ tall. He’s cute, but cute enough to attract the leading lady? Probably not. For all the short men in the world, though, it’s a dream come true.

I’ve seen two real oldies that I want to mention: “The Mountain Men” (1980) and “El Dorado” (1966). These are both westerns and therefore only slightly beliveable and very stylized, but both had their good points. “The Mountain Men” starred Brian Keith and Charleton Heston and was very entertaining, especially when Keith was on screen. His character was boisterous, funny and profane, and more than once I had to do a double take as to what channel I was on. There was a lot of cussing, a lot of dirty jokes and a lot of sexually suggestive actions by both men and women. It was pretty damn funny and it ended when a Native woman went against her society, so it was a real 70’s film with sexual liberation and women’s empowerment, too. El Dorado was a Howard Hawk’s film, part of a trilogy starring John Wayne (Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo being the other two films). There isn’t a lot to recommend it plot-wise, but I liked seeing Robert Mitchum playing a drunk, and the writing was full of straight lines that each character would set up for the next who would hit it out of the park. The characters all had funny observations to make along the way, and it had a very young James Caan in it as a knife-throwing bad shot and there were some laughs there too.

My brother mentioned that he saw and liked “The Artist” but I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet, mostly because my wife resists anything in black and white.

So what have you seen lately?

I’ve been mining some of the old veins lately — Elmore Leonard and Salman Rushdie in particular. 

Elmore Leonard has long been one of my favorites and Hollywood’s too: several times I’ve been astounded to be watching a movie and realize that I know where the plot is going because I’ve already read the book. “Hombre” and “Get Shorty” are two of his to show you just how successful he has become moving over to the movie genre. (BTW, I can’t get the underlining to work here so I’ll just use quotes for titles).

I’ve read three books by him this year: “Killshot”, “Pagan Babies” and “Riding the Rap”. “Killshot” became my all-time favorite and it’s because of his two fortes: character and dialogue/monologue. There are two crooks/killers in the book, one white and one Native American and the white guy’s thought monologues made me laugh outloud several times. It’s amazing how a good writer can make you laugh at a guy who has no idea how funny he sounds. The man and wife characters are the real protagonists and they are both excellent renditions.

“Pagan Babies” had a good plot but I didn’t find myself liking any of the characters, a major drawback. I also found myself skipping over a good part of the background recitations the characters made: what they did with their friends in grade school had little to do with the rest of the story and I was more interested in how the whole complicated plot would come to an end. There were a few gangsters and some conmen circling around some money, and Leonard has a great touch with those situations. It could have been a tighter edit but still entertaining. (He’s a very quick read).

“Riding the Rap” was a sequel to another of his books with Raylan Givins as the major force. Raylan is a modern-day marshal and has the boots and the hat and the gun and the calm attitude. He also has a trademark phrase, something along the lines of “If you draw your gun I’ll have to kill you.” He’s very proud of that phrase because he thinks it’s cool, effective and he worked on it a long time.  I like the character a lot and just knew he’d surface again in a Leonard novel and he has — “Raylan” is coming out early next month. If you’ve encountered Raylan leave a comment as to how you feel about him.

Turning to the Rushdie novel I’m afraid I couldn’t finish it. It’s “Midnight’s Children” and I couldn’t get interested in the characters enough — not that they aren’t characters in every meaning of the word. I managed about 200 pages out of the 550 and it’s a tribute to Rushdie because he is such a devilish, sneaky-good writer. The style in this book was first person narrative by a male family member going through the happenings in his clan and their homes in India starting with his grandfather under British subjugation. No two characters are even remotely alike and as the narrator tells his tale to one of his nieces (I think — it could be his daughter)  he interrupts himself constantly and in these interruptions lies both the beauty and the irritation of Rushdie’s writing. He strings together long lists; he strings together four or five adjectives; he compares whatever he speaking of to something else in a wonderful metaphor or simile — the writing is always good but it makes the story longer and longer and longer. He’s so good that you can’t help but want to keep reading, but he keeps you waiting much too long (on purpose of course, suspense you know) to get to whatever pivotal plot point he’s been heading towards. I loved “The Empress of Florence” and some of “East and West” but the last two books I just haven’t been able to get through.

Thanks to my friend Debbie for recommending Norah Roberts’ “Black Hills”. She read the next to last animal blog here and wrote that the book had endangered animals in it and might be worth a read. Personally, I didn’t like it much, but it was interesting to read a book by an author that takes up so much shelf space in the library. At the risk of being labeled something or other I see her as an author who writes for women. She’s very long on lots of very long dialogues where characters share their feelings; there’s more than a few matched-up and several more in-the-process-of-matching-up couples; there’s a strong female co-lead role. All in all a good experience but I won’t be going back to that well.

Finally, for this blog, there’s a book I read a while back called “Charlie Chan” by Yunte Huang, a naturalized US citizen born in China. Huang came over to the US for college, worked odd jobs to pay his way, and stumbled upon the persona of Charlie Chan. Huang’s journeys across the country lead to his “discovering” Chan and Chan’s creator and make for an entertaining spin. Once he gets into Chan and his predecessorFu Manchu as image of the Chinaman in the US,  the reading gets drier, but still interesting, especially when he goes into the history of Honolulu and an ace Chinese/Hawaiian detective who worked there in the early 20th century.  After I’d read the book I checked out a few Chan novels from the library. They were written around 1925 and as detective books go not too bad, but certainly not Hammett or Chandler.  Earl Derr, the writer, relies on some hilarious cliches — I counted five times in the book that someone “leaped out of his chair” upon hearing some surprising bit of information. Even funnier, in the last chapter someone comes halfway up out of his chair — the information not being all that surprising but maybe just a little.

Coincidentally, after I read Huang’s book I noticed that he was teaching at UC Santa Barbara, the same school where my brother Dan graduated and where my friend Chuck now teaches. Chuck emailed me a photo of Huang on the cover of one of the campus magazines.

That’s it for this blog. I’m currently including a lot of this book info at goodreads.com and if you like books this is a pretty good website.

Don’t forget to check out my own website   


and if you know any high school or junior high school boys tell ’em about it, the book there’s right up their alley(s).

Bye for now, Steve

Glad to get all the feedback about animals and their reserves/news. I wish more of you would leave your message at the bottom so anyone who reads this can see them, but if you want to just email them to me go ahead and I will see that they get into the blog.

I’ll start with my met-online friend Jane Dewar. She has spent almost a lifetime loving, interacting and working with gorillas — in fact, she’s met 450 of the world’s 840 gorillas in captivity. She and her (now ex-) husband started Gorilla Haven, a huge expanse of land in Georgia for gorillas to run free. After so many years of seeing them and being with them she was thrilled to be able to create a reserve for them. Unfortunately, the marriage went south along with the economy, and Jane has been locked out of her own project. This is an ongoing personal tragedy for Jane, as well as the  gorillas, with whom she has made deep, personal relations — she has even been prevented from seeing Joe, the gorilla who lives literally yards from her home. It  points out one of the saddest truths in the wild animal world: they’re at the mercy of humans and humans are not necessarily merciful.

Another friend, Fred, sent me an email about orphan monkeys in Costa Rica. Seems like the electric companies down there string their power lines without regard to the monkeys’ safety. The result is inevitable: hundreds of electrocuted monkeys. Since a certain percentage of those monkeys killed are mothers, their offspring become orphaned. This website shows the monkey orphanage and its efforts:


Other news: the Santa Ana CA zoo has ended their elephant rides. We’d like to think that the reason is that everyone got together and decided that they weren’t going to use elephants this way anymore, but of course that’s not the case. The real reason is that a lot of folks get injured or killed around elephants. The AZA — Association of Zoos and Aquariums —  has guidelines that state that elephants and people are not to share the same space without some sort of protective barrier.

Kudos to the Lockwood Valley Animal Rescue Center in Los Padres CA. Lori Lindner is cofounder and president of this nonprofit sanctuary and she had heard about an “attraction” there named Wolf Country USA which contained 29 “wolf dogs”, cross-bred wolf/dog animals that were often trained as sled dogs. What happens to these dogs when they are no longer useful to humans is that they are given away, turned loose, killed, escape and then are shot, or are chained up, as were these 29. The sanctuary decided to take on these animals and Lori flew up to Anchorage to see to their transport. 

Lori and her organization saved the dogs’ lives. The Alaska state attorney told her the animals were going to be shot by state troopers as there was evidence that the dogs’ owners were not in compliance with state laws on wolf dogs. The cost was covered by $5000 donated by the Humane Society and a “very, very large donation” by Bob Barker — yepthat Bob Barker. The animals joined another 20 wolf dogs already there, and $43,000 was donated by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to construct nine new enclosures with 10 foot fences. The rescue center is trying to buy a nearby 180 acre piece of property to bring in dozens more wolf dogs and wolves. Right now they are operating on a $3000 a month budget for maintenance and $350 a day for raw, day-old meat. A cool program they launched there is called Warriors and Wolves where interactions between the animals and war veterans take place.

On New Year’s Eve day someone cut a hole in the squirrel monkey exhibit fence at the San Francisco Zoo and a 17 year old monkey named Banana Sam escaped. I don’t know what’s worse —  the monkey living in a cage or roaming free in a city. In the case of the former, it would be with its troop,  get regular care and feeding but be imprisoned; in the latter, it would be free but be a scavenger, reduced to trash can robbing and traffic and dog avoidance. I sometimes side with the fence cutters and sometimes with the fence builders.

A “great news” article that I read came up with a report from the Institute of Medicine where a panel of independent experts judged that the use of chimpanzees to test vaccines, etc would be decreasing and that most current experiments involving our “closest primate relative” would be discontinued. Before I read the article I admit that I’d been pretty ignorant that their  use was still so widespread, but it appears that there is a lot of testing — concerning vaccines, viral pathogens and targeted biologic therapies mostly —  that will soon end. Lots of groups gave their “Wahoos!” to this news: the National Institutes of Health; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; PETA; the Humane Society, etc. It seems that as stupid as humans have been in the past treating animals, the intelligence of humans has led to use of computers, new lab techniques and genetic engineering to reduce the need of chimps as human stand-ins. Of course the question then will be, now that they no longer live in labs, where will they live?

Tailcoating on my blog about elephants, I read that there are now just 3000 Sumatran elephants living in the wilds of Indonesia, one of whom trampled a 60-year old farmer to death when villagers tried to shoo some elephants away from their fields. The bull decided that he wasn’t going to be driven away, so he turned and charged the farmers. The victim stumbled and fell while fleeing, though the rest of the men escaped. The knotty issue of where these large mammals are going to live continues.

Speaking of large animals, some scientists are saying that using DNA from animals trapped in glaciers for thousands of years they will be able to bring mammoths back to life by 2030 or 2040. How dumb is that? We don’t have enough room for current pachyderms, where will animals that are 50% bigger than elephants live? Jurassic Park?

With the internet having taken off as it has, so has the market for rare animals. The trade used to be conducted person-to-person in public places where catching the criminals was relatively easy, and geography would limit the ability of the persons involved to strike a deal. Now, since the photos are transmitted easily and the buyer can know what he’s getting, the trade might exceed $20 billion a year! Undercover agents are still at work — thank God — and they recently netted buyer and seller in a sting concerning a $2800 Asian arowana fish. (I know, I’ve never heard of it either: again, thank God for the undercover agents). The IFAW is going to bat for the animals on this one, like they did on the wolf dogs. It’s a relief to know there are so many organizations fighting the good fight. 

A last word which I think I mentioned before: as reported and supported by my sis-in-law, www.elephants.com is a website for The  Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Another worthy cause and a great effort to relieve the repressive living conditions of captive elephants.

Next blog will be books, and as a lot of you know, I just ePublished a book for teenage boys. Check it out at www.snowmobilewerewolf.com Can you guess what it’s about?


Being such a movie lover for so long this is usually the time of year when I start looking forward to the Oscars. I’ve never followed the red carpet aspect in any way, but I’ve had my favorites to root for when the envelopes were opened, and I liked the hosts for the most part.

This year? Not so much. And the reason for my reticence to get caught up in the whole thing is the abysmal choices for best picture for the last five years. The winners? “The King’s Speech”, “Hurt Locker”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “No Country for Old Men”, and “Departed”. I’ve talked to more than a few folks about these movies and I’m not in the minority — these pictures shouldn’t have garnered the top award.

I’m going to back up one step before pressing onward and say that “Slumdog” actually was considered a pretty good picture by most of the people I talked to — I guess it was my wife and I who disagreed. We walked out after about a half an hour. There were three reasons we did this: 1. the scene where the boy climbed down into the porta-potty, fished out a celebrity photo and emerged triumphant and covered with excrement. (Lovely). 2. The brutal murder of the boy’s mother in the first five minutes of the movie; 3. The constant, disturbing, demeaning, cruel treatment of the children. The reports we’ve gotten from others was that the end of the movie was uplifting, but there was no way we could make it that far.

So I was disappointed that “Slumdog” won, but I understood that maybe I was old-fashioned. But the others?

“Speech” is one of the slowest-paced films I’ve seen in recent years, and I belong to Netflix and watch lots of foreign films which are famous for being slow-paced. The actors were all top notch, but we all knew where the film was going so it was hard to be patient and watch the plot unfold: I just couldn’t keep my finger off the fast forward button! The only reason I could see that this film was the winner is that Hollywood has a love affair with English period pieces, and therefore they revel in the great costumes and sets and all the dirt on the royal family. I’m happy the king made it through the speech, but there has to be a better way to get there cinematically.

“Hurt Locker” should have sent waves of empathy through me as I witnessed the main character go through the terror of war and then the inability to re-assimilate to his life at home with his wife and child, but he was not a sympathetic figure in the least. I suppose the film could still have been of “best picture” quality even carried on the shoulders of such a dubious character, but 1. most of the film was shot with hand held cameras giving it a home movie quality; 2.many of the interiors were so poorly lit that it was difficult to see what was happening; and 3. the plot meandered.

“No Country” was beautifully shot, the acting was superb and the pace was terrific, but it took me three or four attempts before I could watch the whole thing. Why? It just seemed like another film of money and drugs and people getting killed every which way because of them. The message was so brutally dark I had trouble judging it as a film — I only ended up seeing the whole of it as we had HBO for a few months and I’d watch parts as it was shown and reshown three or four times a week. It’s hard for me to call something so negative “best” anything.

“Departed”? Did anyone really like that film? Wasn’t it only given the award because the Academy felt guilty for not having rewarded Scorcese earlier? More seedy characters in a shoot ’em up plot.

So you can see why I’m not getting too interested in Oscar season, or award season in general. I get the LA Times and the last five Sunday editions have included a section called “The Envelope” touting the upcoming awards, trying to pump up the excitement. And the  Golden Globes? How many people vote on those? Am I the only one feeling like someone wants to take me for a ride?

My “best pictures” for the last few years? “Juno” is one. “Chocolat” is another. How ’bout “Little Miss Sunshine”? “Lars and the Real Girl” was one of the most imaginative, funny and seriously touching films I’ve ever seen. In a month or so there’ll be another best picture. I suppose I’ll TiVo the program and hope there are some funny spots, but I have no interest in which film wins.

Weigh in with your favorites.

I am about 2/3 through Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku. Kaku is a very smart man who has access to some of the greatest scientific minds of our time: he discusses the future with them and then writes about or does PBS shows about it. (To show you what kind of brainiac he is: 1.he built a cloud chamber with a powerful magnetic field to photograph tracks of antimatter and 2 he built a 2.3 million electron volt particle accelerator. He built both of these in his garage while he was in high school. The particle accelerator took 400 pounds of transformer steel and 22 miles of copper wire and produced a magnetic field 20,000 times stronger than the Earth’s. When he switched it on it used 6 kilowatts of power and frequently blew out all the fuses in his house).

Kaku’s predictions are what make his book so interesting. He divides the 21st century into thirds with predictions about what will occur from now to 2030; then from 2030-2070; then from 2070-2100.

Among his predictions:

* People my age (61) are probably part of the last generation that will die. I’d heard before that my kids (now 26 and 28) would live to be 125, but Kaku’s best guess is it’s going to be longer. DNA genome mapping and the subsequent ability to tinker with it will eliminate disease and aging.

* Your bathroom will have plenty of computer chips embedded in it that will analyse your urine, skin, etc (non-invasively) and you will be warned of any trace of cancer or other life-threatening disease far in advance of it becoming a health issue.

* Computer speed will eventually taper off. Computers have been doubling their speed every 18 months or so due to the increased miniaturization of computer chips but when the chips become 10 atoms or so across they’ll have reached their limit. Unless someone comes up with a replacement for silicon in their formation computer speeds will become more and more stable.

* Skin incisions will become a thing of the past. Miniature (nano) cameras and other devices will be injected into folks’ bloodstreams, directed by doctors from without the body, and any surgeries that need to be done will be accomplished internally.

Kaku addresses the following topics and divides them into the three time periods I mentioned above: computers, Artificial Intelligence (robots and such), Medicine, nanotechnology, energy, space travel and wealth. For the most part he avoids the trap that a lot of scientist fall into which is speaking way above our heads, but he has the annoying habit of going back in time to ancient beliefs or Star Trek references. e.g., He’ll write something like, “The ancient gods lived forever. Now it appears that such immortality is almost within our grasp.” Or, “Dr, McCoy waved the tricorder over the patient and was able to ascertain what was wrong with the patient. When someone mentioned they would have to operate he called them barbarians.” You’ll want to do some skimming.

The book really gets you thinking, though. By the year 2050 most of our furniture might be made of “catoms” (claytronic atoms) which are like tiny grains of sand that are held together by electrical charge. Say you have a nice black easy chair made of catoms but you need a couch or a bed because your nephew’s staying overnight. You simply reprogram the electrical charge, the grains of sand reform, and you now have a couch — shape shifting. If that happens by 2050 think of the effect it will have on every furniture store. Think of the millions of couches that won’t get hauled off to the dump every year; or the millions of tons of energy that won’t be used to make those millions of couches; or the millions of employees at furniture factories who’ll have to find something else to do to make money.

We think the economy is in bad shape now — what happens when manufacturing is cut by 50 or 75 per cent? Man it’s hard to get ready for the future.

I also just finished The Bradbury Report  by Steven Polansky which is about a 60-something guy who meets his 22 year old clone. Polansky’s narrator (named the “original” as he was the one cloned) achieves an emotional renaissance through interacting with his clone, and you really feel for the three main characters — the third one being a lady that knew “Ray” as a young man and coincidentally was brought in on the case of his clone who had escaped from a clone compound.The story is great but the author gets way too bogged down in inconsequential ideas: I started skimming descriptions about 1/4 of the way through the book. Sometimes I wonder why editors allow their writers so much leeway. The book is 326 pages and could easily be 100 pages less.

Thanks for all the comments about the last blog. I’ll be shifting (not shape shifting) back to movies in my next one. 



One of the threads I’d like to explore in this blog is just what the title of this post says.

My friend Elaine commented upon the death of an elephant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (it used to be named the Wild Animal Park). It seems that there was a territorial dispute, and one elephant killed the other.

Fights (often to the death) like this happen in Wild Animal Parks (WAPs) simply because there isn’t enough room for each dominant male and his harem. I’m in the process of writing the memoirs of my friend Brian who worked at a WAP for 21 years, and he recounts a battle over territory between a Cape buffalo and a black rhino that was epic, and tragic.

As I’ve been ghost writing these memoirs (and working on a novel that parallels the memoirs) I’ve done a lot of research and what I originally thought about Africa and its ability to sustain a good life for these large animals was wrong — i.e., there really is NOT enough room for them.

One of the books I read in my research was Zoo Story by Thomas French, (excellent), and it begins with the relocation of a large number of elephants to the SD WAP and also to a zoo in Florida (in Tampa, I’m pretty sure). The relocation turned into a battle with several groups weighing in pro and con: PETA for one, Zoological Societies and many many more organizations on one side of the issue or the other. Mr. French pointed out very clearly that the two African parks from which the elephants were being moved could not possibly have sustained even half of the elephants that were there.

This was a total surprise to me. After decades of watching documentaries on elephants in Africa I’d assumed that there was plenty of room. Not even close. There was enough acreage there, even with the incredible encroachment of the massive amounts of people into what was once wilderness. But the park could no longer sustain the elephant population because elephants beat the hell out of the land! They are incredibly destructive: pushing down trees, ripping up the ground, eating or destroying any and all vegetation and pretty much making the land unfit to live on.

So at least half of the animals had to be moved.  Zoo Story  gives a lot of the details and then goes into a lot more about the Tampa Zoo. Very compelling. And what is going to happen to elephants in the future is anything but clear.

I’ll be writing more about this later and I certainly want other comments here on the blog, so please jump in.

I’m including hereafter in this blog a couple of exerpts from Brian’s memoirs that deal with elephants. There’ll be more to come, and hopefully the book will be out before next June (probably an eBook) but we have to consult with a lawyer first — don’t want to get sued if/when we point fingers.

Exerpt 1

They say that elephants never forget and I saw many, many examples of that while working at the Park. One came home to my partner and me with a vengeance.

It was late spring, the weather nice in the morning but sometimes a bit warm in the afternoon, and the job du jour was cleaning out the moat line around the Asian elephant enclosure. We were there with the track loader and the big five yard dump truck. We’d put the caterpillar [loader] in there the day before, so we threw our lunches and gear into the dump truck and drove over and into the enclosure. The keepers had to let us in because of the two gate system they had over there. The elephants were curious about what was going on and the keepers were holding them back as the interior gate was opened. What the keepers used were these two foot dowels with pointed hooks screwed into the ends – basically a one inch thick stick with a hook. It was amazing to me that such tiny devices could be used to control such large animals, and it shows how tame the animals were: if they had been wild at all those hooks would have been laughably inadequate.

The area was a couple of acres large. I felt like we were inching forward in the dump truck – its speed is OK on paved roads but here it was pretty rough terrain. The exhibit was so rutted that we’d have been scraping our scalps off the roof of the cab if I’d driven too fast. The ground was full of pits because the elephants constantly dug in it when they were looking for soil to throw on their backs. They’d kick at the earth with their feet to loosen it up then use their trunks to gather it in a pile. With the curled end of their trunks they’d surround the little pile of dirt then throw it onto their shoulders and backs with one smooth motion. The dirt acts as a sunscreen, (I don’t know theSPF). Seven or eight elephants constantly relandscaping coupled with the fact that the animals’ grazing had left no grass growing resulted in a cratered surface that was painful to drive over.

Moat cleaning was so routine that I wasn’t expecting any difficulty but I knew enough to be alert – I’d dealt enough with rhinos to know how much damage a large animal can do. I was just poking along when I heard the keepers screaming. I wondered what was up and I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head and my heart started hammering when I realized it was a big elephant charging right at us! It was such an alarming sight and I didn’t know what to do, so I just stopped the truck. (If I hadn’t stopped, she would have just run us down anyway – they can run over twenty miles per hour and we couldn’t do more than ten on that terrain).

She charged up, her head level with the dump truck’s elevated cab. I thought she was going to bash right into us, but she pulled up sharply at the last minute, dust clouds rising around her. The windows were open so I could see every crease, crack, wrinkle and hair on her gray, leathery skin as clearly as if I were looking through a magnifying glass. Her musty smell filled the cab and she pushed her trunk inside, smelling my crotch right away to identify me. Evidently I passed the smell test because she reached her trunk across me to smell my partner, her mouth filling my window and this huge, wide, angry eyeball level with my head. When she smelled him, it must have pulled a memory lever in her brain. She pulled her trunk back and blew snot all over him, absolutely covering him with snot.

The keepers were attentive and they sprang into action, trying to get her away from the truck by pulling at her with their flimsy hooks.  I was pretty calm considering that I was in the center of an intense whirlwind of action: the truck was rocking back and forth as the giant pushed in then backed off; my partner was cowering against the passenger side door, already squirming in discomfort from the snot all over him and scared silly by the elephant’s onslaught; I could see the concentration in the keepers’ eyes as they yelled and jumped about like Lilliputians around Gulliver, brandishing their hooks; the elephant’s shaggy head was so close to me that I could smell her breath and feel the exhalations on my face and arms.

It took a few minutes to get her away from the truck — with an animal that size and with the tools they were using it was really up to her when she’d leave. The upshot was she eventually felt like complying and let them lead her away.

Well of course we had to get my partner cleaned up – he couldn’t work all snotted up like that and the smell was rank besides. We started on back for the shop where the lockers were.

Our drive out of the exhibit was slow and once the adrenaline rush of an encounter with the four ton animal had worn off I turned and took a good look at my partner. I started laughing. Then I started howling. He was sitting there in as sorry a physical situation as a man not hurt could be, but the fact that I didn’t have a speck of snot on me and he was literally covered with it from head to knee was funnier than I could have imagined it to be. I laughed till my sides ached and the tears in my eyes made it hard to drive.

“Why do you think that elephant did that? I asked him when I could catch my breath.

“I know that old elephant,” he spat out. “ Her name’s Carol. I worked her over in some shows a few years back. Our job was to hit ‘em till they obeyed. I guess she was just getting even.”

I couldn’t get much more out of him than that, and for a few minutes we drove in silence. I’d heard stories about elephant abuse. I hadn’t witnessed any myself, but the mental pictures I had were bad enough. But in a couple of minutes, and after a few more glances at my snot-covered partner, my good humor returned. “Payback, Baby, payback!” I thought to myself, and that started me laughing again.

“Shut up!” he snapped, but that made me laugh all the harder.

He got cleaned up, we made the trip back in the turtle-paced dump truck and were let in to the enclosure by the keepers as we’d been earlier in the day. They said Carol was under control, so I got into the 951 Cat [loader] and started scraping out the silt and debris from the moats and loading the dump truck with its big front bucket. [The big shovel-like thing on the front.] My partner was driving the truck this time when – deja vu – he heard the keepers yelling again. I was only on my second or third shovel-full of moat sludge when Carol came charging again.  She hit the dump truck with her head right where Justin was, right on the door. The impact was terrific. Then with her massive head down she started pushing and the dump truck actually started to go over! Luckily I was holding the Cat’s bucket in the back of the dump truck, so she was pushing against the combined weight of the truck and the tractor.  If the bucket hadn’t been right where it was I’m sure she would have pushed that dump truck right over with my partner inside.

The handlers got Carol under control again, and we decided to get out of the exhibit.  By this time it was obvious that she had it in for my partner, and it was to the point where we were concerned for everybody’s safety.

Exerpt 2

For a time, working with elephants was the most dangerous of all zoo jobs. According to Thomas French in his excellent book The Zoo there was an average of a death a year among the trainers and keepers. (The Niagara Center for Animal Rights Awareness says that “It is estimated that over 100 people have been killed by elephants worldwide since 1980). Much of this came about because of a policy known as “free contact”, which is self-explanatory: humans getting in there with the elephants and being very hands-on.

The measure and depth of elephant society is coming more clearly into focus, but during that death-a-year period it wasn’t so well known. The treatment of elephants was changing dramatically: it was a transition from controlling elephant behavior so they could act as performers and workers to allowing them the space they needed to develop herd identity and order. Young elephants had often been beaten with ax handles and chained to already-trained elephant veterans to learn what humans wanted them to do. The brutal handling became a thing of the past but trainers still felt they could interact closely with the behemoths. Obviously it wasn’t safe for the puny humans so a new, “controlled contact” or “protected contact” policy was initiated, wherein the animals would be separated from the trainers and vets and be handled through the bars of cages. With this in mind, the elephant enclosures were completely restructured and new methods of positive enforcement and reward became the accepted training methods.

My friend Susan, a student in my guitar class, came up with a folk song that’s perfect for the Occupy! movement. She persuaded me (although she didn’t have to try too hard) to write some music for it and after I put in a few edits here and there I recorded it and put it on my site on youtube. Check it out.


Feels good to do a little political activism after a bit of a layoff.

Hey Folks!

This is the first entry on my new blog which I’ve started to share info about my various projects and thoughts about movies, books and zoo-related issues. Sounds like an odd trio of issues, but there you go.

Went to see “Tower Heist” the other night with my wife, Donna, and definitely liked it. The movie was thought up by Eddie Murphy as featuring an all-black cast, but as it went through its various rewrites it was obvious that any large hotel/condo was going to employ a ethnic variety folks and an all-black cast would be so unrealistic as to be laughable.

Was glad to see Ben Stiller in a role not as over the top as his usual “Fokker” stuff. I always liked “The Ben Stiller Show” on TV and I was disappointed once he went into the movies and was constantly doing those overacting-on-purpose performances. He’s pretty much the star of this movie, with Matthew Broderick, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck and Michael Pena his cohorts, and an ensemble cast including Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe, Tea Leoni and Judd Hirsch.

No side-splitting laughs but lots of chuckles and a very well thought out plot.

On an unrelated note, did you see where Ringling Brothers had to pay a $275k fine for animal abuse? Since one of my projects is a novel set in a wild animal park I’ve been doing a lot of research on animals in captivity and it’s truly appalling what used to go on. Things have gotten better in general but with African countries having little room for wilderness the problems are ongoing. (The West African black rhino is now extinct). Glad to see that there are watchdogs to prevent animal abuse. The video of Dunda, the elephant, being beaten into submission with ax handles was an eye-opener to millions of animal lovers. Young elephants are still being bullied and beaten in Asian countries in order to be prepared for a life of servitude at the hands of their human masters. It’s pretty sickening.

Hey Folks!

This is the first entry on my new blog which I’ve started to share info about my various projects and thoughts about movies, books and zoo-related issues. Sounds like an odd trio of issues, but there you go.

Went to see “Tower Heist” the other night with my wife, Donna, and definitely liked it. The movie was thought up by Eddie Murphy as featuring an all-black cast, but as it went through its various rewrites it was obvious that any large hotel/condo was going to employ a ethnic variety folks and an all-black cast would be so unrealistic as to be laughable.

Was glad to see Ben Stiller in a role not as over the top as his usual “Fokker” stuff. I always liked “The Ben Stiller Show” on TV and I was disappointed once he went into the movies and was constantly doing those overacting-on-purpose performances. He’s pretty much the star of this movie, with Matthew Broderick, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck and Michael Pena his cohorts, and an ensemble cast including Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe, Tea Leoni and Judd Hirsch.

No side-splitting laughs but lots of chuckles and a very well thought out plot.

On an unrelated note, did you see where Ringling Brothers had to pay a $275k fine for animal abuse? Since one of my projects is a novel set in a wild animal park I’ve been doing a lot of research on animals in captivity and it’s truly appalling what used to go on. Things have gotten better in general but with African countries having little room for wilderness the problems are ongoing. (The West African black rhino is now extinct). Glad to see that there are watchdogs to prevent animal abuse. The video of Dunda, the elephant, being beaten into submission with ax handles was an eye-opener to millions of animal lovers. Young elephants are still being bullied and beaten in Asian countries in order to be prepared for a life of servitude at the hands of their human masters. It’s pretty sickening.