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Robin Huffman – Woman Reinvented and Reborn

Posted by on Sep 19, 2019 in Writing | 0 comments

Several weeks ago, I met an extraordinary woman. With an extraordinary story. Robin Huffman worked as an interior designer and project manager with a global firm in New York City. In 2017 after 29 years at the firm, she decided to take some time off to volunteer at an ape and monkey sanctuary in Cameroon. It was intended to be a break from the grind of corporate city life. Just a summer to re-set. But at the sanctuary, she was tasked with caring for a tiny, blue-faced monkey named Maasai.   Maasai (Moustached guernon – after a photo by Ian Bickerstaff; 20.5 x 28 Acrylic on paper) Robin told me that until then she had never felt any maternal instinct. “I didn’t even like to babysit,” she said. But when this fragile baby, who fit in the palm of her hand, looked up at her, Robin felt an overwhelming desire to protect, care for, and mother this infant. Two lives were changed. Maasai and Robin. And in the weeks that followed, the feeling grew, the little orphan clinging to her caregiver as much as she could. Primates like Maasai’s parents are killed by poachers for bushmeat or are unable to survive as their jungle habitat is cut down for timber or razed to cultivate cash crops such as coffee and cocoa. Most of the local villagers have no knowledge of proper land management practices and are completely unaware of the effects of deforestation on the environment and animals. The sanctuary where Robin stayed serves as a center, educating the residents and the hundreds of visitors who come to the sanctuary every month. Soon, Robin began her transformation from volunteer educator and primate caregiver to artist, dedicating her life to telling the stories through her paintings of many of the primates she personally raised. Most astonishing to me is that the only painting class Robin had ever taken was more than 40 years earlier at the age of twelve. It’s as if she picked up a brush and the miracle that are animals flowed through her hands. Maggie May with Leaves (Mandrill; 60 x 40 Acrylic on linen) The sanctuary counts on volunteers, who typically stay from one to three months. But some, like Robin, return again and again. In fact, Robin stepped away from her career and her home to be able to volunteer more at the sanctuaries. And her art continued. Witness (Lesula after a photo by Maurice Emetshu; 60 x 48 Acrylic on canvas) It wasn’t all easy by any stretch. When I asked Robin what the most difficult part of living in the jungle was (after years of being a Manhattanite), she said without pause, “The bugs.” There are the Soldier Ants that swarm through the kitchen area or young primate sleeping spaces, the seemingly unlimited species of flies and jiggers that make life more than a little annoying. But there are the apes and monkeys. And there are the paintings! Jimmy Jimmy (De Brazza’s monkey; 48 x 36 Acrylic on linen) I have posted a few here. But please visit Robin’s site to look at the incredible work she is doing. Mowgli – Vervet monkey; 48 x 48 Acrylic on canvas) And should you be so moved as to want to volunteer yourself (the bugs...

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The Two Sorriest Dogs in America (Part 1)

Posted by on Aug 5, 2019 in Writing | 0 comments

I have never written a book or a story in which I didn’t know the end. Didn’t know the middle. Didn’t have an arc. Didn’t have an outline. I’ve never written a book or a story with anyone else (except my editor). Until now. I’m going to start a story not knowing where it’s going to take me. Always open to ideas from readers, friends, and interested parties. Just throw ‘em out there and I’ll weave them into the writing. This story (inspired by a headline I saw on Facebook) is about a woman who walks into a shelter and asks to adopt the two dogs who have been there the longest. Edna Marble twisted the rearview mirror down to check herself. The lines in her face were still there. So was the dull, gray hair she tied back in a ponytail. Even the filament was growing again – okay, the whisker – one black, wiry hair that poked out of her chin. Whenever it was long enough for the tweezers to grasp, Edna would pluck it out, but it always came back, a stubborn, heartless reminder that she was getting old. “How do I look?” she asked. No one responded as there was no one to hear or presumably care. But Edna cared. In fact, she had put on a bit a makeup before she left, feeling that somehow it might make a difference. After trying on a brief smile, she stepped out of the Mercedes and walked into the shelter. At once, she was met with the thick smell of unwashed dog blankets, topped with an acrid odor of disinfectant in the small reception area. The walls had been painted a pale lime green, the linoleum floor was stained in several places, but the plastic chairs pushed against the walls looked new. No one was behind the desk, but she could hear the excited yipping of dogs coming from a room somewhere beyond. The front door behind her opened, and cool air swirled in along with a rather scary looking hulk of a man with an even scarier looking very large dog. Together they seemed to take up most of the space in the room. The man had rough features and tattoos on both his forearms. He looked around him and stated, “No one’s here.” “I’m here,” said Edna. “Can I leave him with you?” he asked, nodding to his companion, who was panting as though he’d run miles. “No, you cannot.” “Well, I can’t take him with me. They don’t allow dogs.” “What’s his name?” “Chester.” Edna took another look at Chester. She thought he was a Rottweiler, jet black with spots of brown over his eyes; the same light brown highlighted his mouth, making it look even bigger. He was drooling excessively. Just then, a heavy-set woman with red hair emerged from the back room. “Mornin’ folks, what can I do fer ya?” she asked in a slight Scottish accent. Feeling the presence of Chester and his companion looming, Edna stepped aside. The man stood his ground and tightened his grasp on Chester’s thick leather leash. “I have to leave him here,” he said gruffly. “Where I’m going, they don’t take dogs.” All at once, his face contorted in a spasm of grief and he...

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Fake News – Behind the BigAg Machine

Posted by on Jun 2, 2019 in Writing | 1 comment

In The Experiment, investigator Jude Brannock travels to a quiet farming community in rural Vermont to find her young protégé who has inexplicably vanished from his undercover job at a laboratory that is testing a new drug on animals. Although a fictional suspense novel, I have always tried to research the issues around which my stories revolve. In this newest book, genetically modified plants and the farmers who resist the chokehold of giant agribusinesses like Monsanto play a part. Because I’m not a scientist, I rely heavily on organizations and websites that will provide me with unbiased information in layman’s terms. I thought I had found one such site in The Genetic Literacy Project. Their tag line is “Science Not Ideology.” Their archived articles cover such topics as Crops & Food, Health & Wellness, and Sustainability, amongst many others. And at the top of their page, they assert that they are committed to full transparency, providing as proof a link to their latest “annual report.” Sounds pretty solid, right? The clue that this organization was not what it seems (and as a mystery writer, I’m into clues), was a single item in their mission statement: “Our goal is to disentangle science from ideology, prevent legislative over-reach, promote cooperation among academic and industry researchers and encourage an ethically and scientifically sound development of innovative genetic technologies that also respect our religious diversity.” There it was … “prevent legislative over-reach.” In other words … No regulations. No collusion. No obstruction. So, I did some digging and learned that The Genetic Literacy Project is a key partner in Monsanto’s public relations efforts to protect and defend agrichemical products. The founder Jon Entine portrays himself as an objective authority on science, but according to US Right to Know, he is a longtime PR operative with deep ties to the chemical industry. Entine was the founder and principal of ESG MediaMetrics, a public relations firm that had Monsanto as a client in 2011. At the time, he was employed by the now-defunct Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a nonprofit group that was known to take positions bucking scientific consensus or dismissing emerging evidence of harm. The parent company of STATS was the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), which in the 1990’s was paid by Philip Morris to discredit stories critical of smoking. Entine was a director of the CMPA in fiscal year 2014/2015. He’s been on somebody’s corporate payroll for quite a while. The Project’s tax documents reveal a pattern of funding from anonymous sources and right-wing foundations that push deregulation and climate science denial as well as undisclosed funding from the biotechnology industry. So, whether you’re writing a novel or just want to know what your kids are eating, be your own detective. Look for the clues, and then start...

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Thoughts on Animal Rescue Stories

Posted by on Mar 23, 2019 in Writing | 0 comments

I am trying to discipline myself when it comes to Facebook scrolling. But I admit that I get bogged down when it comes to animal rescue stories. I am compelled to watch the video or read the story to the end. And given the number of shares and likes they all get, I am not alone. Many psychologists say that because, as humans, we are aware of our ultimate death, we dream of being rescued ourselves. Beginning at birth, we survive because our parents save us from hunger and predators. To be worthy of rescue, the infant adapts to the script of its culture and tries to grow up to be a hero esteemed for saving others. Perhaps. But that speaks to our relationship with other humans. What about with animals? It has made me wonder what it is about these stories that so captures us? Of course, we’re glad that the wolf did not drown in an icy river and that the baby elephant stuck in a pit was reunited with her mother. But I think our need for these stories is more about our feelings toward our fellow man than it is about the animals themselves.   A man who jumps into an icy river to save a wolf does so out of compassion. There is no time to wonder if his peers will view him as a hero. His act of rescue is a split-second decision that says, I cannot stand by and see this animal suffer. A poor community in India that spends a day saving an elephant from a mud pit does so out of respect, not to garner attention from National Geographic. The difficult day-long task says, we pull together to help this animal because it’s the right thing to do. In each case, we see the goodness that exists in people. And in these days of division, anger, and bitterness, it is of immense relief. Ah, goodness exists. We watch until the end....

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Book Review – The Tusk That Did the Damage

Posted by on Nov 11, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

  In my pursuit to find contemporary animal-themed fiction, I came across a remarkable novel called The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James. It is told in the alternative voices of an elephant, a poacher and a filmmaker – each of whom provide a different perspective on the state of conservation in India. The elephant is nicknamed The Gravedigger. Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor, he has finally escaped the abuse by one of his caretakers and has gone on a deranged rampage in the Indian countryside leaving human victims. The poacher is the younger son of a poor rice farmer drawn into the money-making world of poaching. Into the story is thrust an idealistic young American filmmaker who is trying to capture the inner minds of elephants. It is, ultimately, only the Gravedigger who reveals to the reader his feelings, both about his brutal treatment at the hands of men and his kind thoughts for the few who cared for him as best they could. For animal lovers, the book is a heartbreaking reminder of the tragedy of the ivory trade. Yet, James brings to the table the complex and difficult lives of the farmers whose hard-won crops are destroyed by elephants and the porous boundary between conservation and corruption. At times the novel reads like a dream from which one cannot wake. It intertwines fantastical myths of how elephants once had wings with the dismal reality of the small, hot, and dusty offices of beleaguered conservation wardens. And it does all of this in arrestingly original prose. It is a sad statement that we have been unable to stop the slaughter of these amazing, majestic animals. Yet while this compelling and emotional book cannot give us much hope that things will change, it does offer a chance to see all the sides of this calamitous...

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Review of The Wildlands by Abby Geni

Posted by on Sep 30, 2018 in Writing | 0 comments

  I have long believed that a powerful way to reach people about the sentience of animals and our  shameful treatment of them is through fiction. Thus, I keep my eyes open for good novels with the courage to tackle that difficult topic. The most recent read is a remarkable literary thriller called The Wildlands, by Abby Geni. A couple of years ago, I had read Geni’s earlier book, The Lightkeepers, an atmospheric, slow-building suspense novel about a nature photographer who travels to the Farallon Islands on a long residency. The tension between man and animals is woven into the story beautifully, but I found this most recent book a step up in her willingness to blend compelling narrative with a sense of social justice for animals. The Wildlands opens with a Category 5 tornado that ravages the town of Mercy, Oklahoma, with particular vengeance aimed at the McCloud family. Four siblings, who have already suffered the loss of their mother from cancer, huddle in the basement while the storm demolishes their home, their father, and their farm animals. Sisters Darlene, Jane, and Cora weather their survival by making media headlines, while their brother Tucker abandons them and disappears. ​On the three-year anniversary of the tornado, a cosmetics factory outside of Mercy is bombed, and the lab animals trapped within are released. Tucker reappears, injured from the blast, and seeks the help of nine-year-old Cora. Captivated by her charismatic brother, she agrees to accompany Tucker on a cross-country mission to “free” the animals, even if it means using violent means. I was very curious to see how the author would portray this eco-terrorist and his overriding passion for justice. I was not disappointed. The story is a whirlwind read with sympathetic characters, while questioning what can happen when the rage against animal abuse takes an awful toll on the perpetrators of violence and even on the animals themselves. Despite the uncomfortable dilemma, it is clear the Geni is a lover of animals and clearly recognizes the abuse they suffer at the hands of man. In an interview with the Chicago Review of Books, she says, “In The Wildlands, Tucker is an arsonist, a bomber, and a vigilante. He does things I would never do, but his motives make complete sense to me. He sees what is happening to our planet—what human beings are doing to our planet—as a violent assault. He believes he’s responding with proportional violence. I don’t intend to start blowing up buildings, but I share Tucker’s sense of helplessness and rage. The sixth mass extinction of life on Earth is happening right now, and it’s an emergency.” The ending is a killer … hard to read, but harder to put down. A really fine, fine book!...

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For I will consider my dog Percy

Posted by on Jun 27, 2017 in Writing | 1 comment

For anyone who has ever loved an animal. By the poet Mary Oliver. For I will consider my dog Percy. For he was made small but brave of heart. For if he met another dog he would kiss her in kindness. For when he slept he snored only a little. For he could be silly and noble in the same moment. For when he spoke he remembered the trumpet and when he scratched he struck the floor like a drum. For he ate only the finest food and drank only the purest of water, yet he would nibble of the dead fish also. For he came to me impaired and therefore certain of short life, yet thoroughly rejoiced in each day. For he took his medicines without argument. For he played easily with the neighbor’s Bull Mastiff. For when he came upon mud he splashed through it. For he was an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon. For he listened to poems as well as love-talk. For when he sniffed it was as if he were being pleased by every part of the world. For when he sickened he rallied as many times as he could. For he was a mixture of gravity and waggery. For we humans can seek self-destruction in ways he never dreamed of. For he took actions both cunning and reckless, yet refused always to offer himself to be admonished. For his sadness though without words was understandable. For there was nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest. For there was nothing brisker than his life when in motion. For he was of the tribe of Wolf. For when I went away he would watch for me at the window. For he loved me. For he suffered before I found him, and never forgot it. For he loved Anne. For when he lay down to enter sleep he did not argue about whether or not God made him. For he could fling himself upside down and laugh a true laugh. For he loved his friend Ricky. For he would dig holes in the sand and then let Ricky lie in them. For I often see his shape in the clouds and this is a continual...

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The Experiment

Posted by on Oct 19, 2016 in Writing | 0 comments

To get a glimpse into the 3rd book of The Kinship Series, watch this amazing video by Beagle Freedom Project.

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Kaley – the rock star of TAFA 2016

Posted by on Jul 6, 2016 in Writing | 1 comment

It’s always been hard for us to leave our rescue dog Kaley for any length of time. She’s a rather nervous girl and often won’t eat or even chew on her favorite bone when we’re away. And it’s hard for us to leave her with even the most responsible dog sitter. It would always remind me of when my husband dropped off our five-year-old son at Kindergarten for the first time. When my husband assured him that he would do just fine, the little guy clung to his leg and said, “But you don’t understand. No one here loves me.” That’s our problem leaving Kaley. We know she’ll be fed, taken for walks, and petted. But she won’t be loved. Not the way we love her.  SO… This year, we took her to the Taking Action for Animals Conference in Arlington, VA. Certain she would freak out at the crowds – at getting in an elevator – at walking along a busy city street. And she was a nervous dog, no question. But TAFA is a conference filled with people who appreciate, work for, and love  animals.  And Kaley was a rock star. She’s coming with us from now on.  ...

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“Hey Sundance, Who Are Those Guys?”

Posted by on Jan 26, 2016 in Writing | 2 comments

Each day that Ammon Bundy and his band of armed militiamen stay holed up at the Malheur Refuge, they make us wonder, in the words of Butch Cassidy, “Who are those guys?” They’re adamant that they will not leave until the federal government gives them back their land so they can graze livestock wherever they want.  Yet in actual truth, they do graze their cattle and sheep pretty much wherever they want. Approximately 230 million acres of federal land out west is allocated for livestock grazing, with the grazing fees less than 10% of what ranchers pay to graze on private lands. Yet even then, most western ranching operations are not economically profitable. And cattle grazed on public land represent less than 3% of the national beef supply. So who are the Bundys and the others who would threaten federal officials with assault rifles to “protect” a nonviable and probably difficult way of life? What do they really want? I think the answer lies in George Wuerthner’s astute observation that the western ranchers’ identity is tied into entrenched American attitudes about beef, cowboys and the western frontier. Wuerthner is an activist and Projects Director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, publisher of an eye-opening book called Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. He points out that many of the early colonists were from northern Europe where meat was primarily available only to the aristocracy. Meat was a symbol of wealth and prosperity – as it now is many underdeveloped nations. And this view was brought to America where cattle grazing land was cheap or free, and land barons amassed huge herds. Moreover, in this wild west, ranching became the first step in domesticating the landscape and taming the wilderness. Wuerthner writes, “At an even deeper level, the cattle culture is based on a world view that sees nature as requiring control, and those who do the controlling as powerful people.” This notion gave birth to the rodeo – a symbol of the taming of wild animals. The cowboy, with his strength and toughness, rides the wild, bucking bronco and captures the fleeing bull with his lasso. Thus, the idea of preserving wildlands and biodiversity runs entirely counter to the self-image of “real” cowboys like Ammon Bundy. The image of the cowboy is at the epicenter of the frontier. He is rugged and tough, loyal and ethical. Americans have romanticized the cowboy in movies, music, and art. He is the Marlboro man – a man who won’t back down from a fight. I dare say, too, he won’t back down from his outrage that the world is changing and the frontier-for-the-taking days are over.  In a 2005 study conducted by the Western Economics Forum, both large and small ranchers said that the primary reason for owning a ranch was for the preservation of land ownership, family tradition, culture and values. But along comes the federal government responding to public pressure to preserve a refuge for birds, and on an even broader scale, a world  that is opening up to diversity, gender equality, animal rights, veganism. Pull back even farther and we are confronted with a world that must cope with climate change. Who are those guys? George Wuerthner knows. They are the modern day John Waynes who...

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