animals

This is your brain on whales (and dolphins and sea birds)

Last weekend I spent 36 hours on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean in search of marine wildlife. This is what I saw. And thought.

Humpback whale, Great South Channel, Atlantic Ocean. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Humpback whale, Great South Channel, Atlantic Ocean. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

how could such an enormous creature simply slip beneath the surface in such a small swirl of water and vanish, right before my eyes?

how is it that this creature that seems to magically exist in this other reality, this other world–this vast, dark ocean–be made of the same stuff as me: flesh and bone and brain and spirit; suspended in water and raised on our mothers’ milk?

…are these whales my brothers and sisters?

These musings and more posted on Medium, with more of my original photography. Read here

Looking for birds and plastic in Denmark

Reflecting on my recent research trip to Copenhagen

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian magpie. 

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian magpie. 

People who love birds look for birds wherever they go. I happen to be one of those people. 

When I recently took a trip to Denmark, early morning bird watching with my Alaskan malamute dog became one of the most pleasurable parts of my daily routine. We’d walk from our fifth-floor apartment in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro neighborhood down and around the three manmade lakes that run through the heart of the city. Because where there is water, one will often find birds.

©Erica Cirino. Sortedams Sø, one of the three lakes that run through the heart of Copenhagen. 

©Erica Cirino. Sortedams Sø, one of the three lakes that run through the heart of Copenhagen. 

©Erica Cirino. Foosa, my birdwatching buddy.

©Erica Cirino. Foosa, my birdwatching buddy.

And we did see birds, my dog and I. They belonged to an interesting array of species: hooded crows, Eurasian magpies, mute swans, mallards, pigeons, great blue herons, Eurasian coots, great cormorants, black-headed gulls, red-necked grebes….

©Erica Cirino. Black-headed gulls. 

©Erica Cirino. Black-headed gulls. 

©Erica Cirino. Male mallard duck. 

©Erica Cirino. Male mallard duck. 

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian coots.

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian coots.

Seeing so many birds in one small urban environment was heartening. But the birds’ habitat itself wasn’t always pretty. The lakes in Denmark — like many water bodies all over the world — are filled with plastic. Some of it is thrown there intentionally, while the rest blows in off roads and out of trashcans.

On more than one occasion I watched plastic bags — just out of my reach — blow across the water’s surface past the many birds that floated there. A lot of the bags, and other plastic trash — like water bottles, balloons and children’s toys — sank to the bottom of the lakes, right where many of the water birds dive and dabble. Research on plastic suggests bottom-feeding organisms are ingesting the stuff — so there’s little reason to believe the birds I’m seeing aren’t scooping some of it up.

©Erica Cirino. Mute swan in trash-filled water. 

©Erica Cirino. Mute swan in trash-filled water. 

©Erica Cirino. Close-up of trash (mostly plastic) next to mute swan. 

©Erica Cirino. Close-up of trash (mostly plastic) next to mute swan. 

There is a big political push now in Denmark to combat plastic pollution. SF, a left-wing political party just introduced a new bill that would help do that. Pro-environment nonprofits and non-governmental organizations such as the Danish Ecological Council are pushing for it to become law.

According to the Danish scientists I met with, one newly identified source of plastic pollution is plastic microfiber found in clothing. This microfiber can be found in wastewater sludge, which is used to fertilize crops — from which plastic is probably being washed off by rain back into the oceans and other water bodies. To limit this type of plastic pollution, scientists say plastic-free clothing as well as upgraded sewage and sewage treatment technologies are needed.

So, while plastic is now getting a lot of political attention in Denmark and other parts of the world, only our own actions can prevent pollution. And scientists say that means we need to use less or no plastic, and if we do use it we must take care to dispose of it properly or take measures to ensure it doesn’t end up in natural ecosystems.

Until we do these things, we can expect to see plastic collecting quite unnaturally amongst the birds and other wild creatures — where it should not be.

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Erica Cirino is a freelance science writer and artist based in New York, who is traveling the world to bear witness to plastic pollution and meet with plastic experts. She’s currently giving and scheduling presentations about her findings as part of her Go and See Tour: A Discussion About Plastic Pollution at high schools, colleges and public places. She is the recipient of a 2017 Safina Center Kalpana Launchpad Fellowship, which is helping support this project. 

Originally posted to the Safina Center Blog on March 28, 2017. 

In defense of adventure

Me at age 3 or 4, checking out a lizard in Florida.

Me at age 3 or 4, checking out a lizard in Florida.

When I was a little kid, an adventure consisted of investigating every nook and cranny of my family's suburban Long Island backyard. Within the confines of one fenced acre, I'd wade through my mother's ferns and cattails pretending to be on safari as I searched for birds, squirrels, snails and praying mantises. When I found an animal I thought was cool, I'd carefully sketch in it a spiral notebook. When exhausted from crawling around in the dirt and grass, I'd retreat inside to a glass of lemonade and review my drawings, trying to assign names to the creatures I saw.

That was my wilderness.

When I grew older and had more freedom, I moved on to biking, running and walking around nearby State and County parks and beaches. Suddenly my world became filled with much more wildness. I could get up close to deer, snapping turtles, fish, raccoons, opossums, foxes. The vegetation was lusher, more green. When I got a car I began driving to parks further from home. Each park was different, each was its own wilderness, its own adventure.

The park I grew up behind from ages 6-20, photo taken by me at age 16.

The park I grew up behind from ages 6-20, photo taken by me at age 16.

Today, as a freelance science writer and artist, I go on adventures as a living. I pack up at least once a month and head off somewhere different to cover a different story. Some friends and family members have urged me to "settle down" like they have, to get a "steady" job with benefits like dental and health insurance and a 401K plan. "Want adventure?" they ask. "That's what vacation days are for. Go to a resort in Cancún or Miami or the Bahamas. You'll love it."

I'm skeptical. I believe we were all meant to really, truly adventure, to put ourselves in situations that may not be comfortable, or enjoyable even, but that are different than our everyday lives. That is where we can find the courage within ourselves to grow. That's where we learn things about the world, the life on it and ourselves. 

Last week I explored a region of the U.S. I had never before seen: The West and Pacific Northwest. What did I find there? Breathtakingly beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife (orcas, auks, magpies, deer and more). Old friends and new friends. Steep city streets and gently sloping mountaintops. More confidence in my ability to navigate places I've never been and more appreciation for the many places I have been and excitement to explore those I haven't.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Leg 1 of my two-week adventure this month. September 2016.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Leg 1 of my two-week adventure this month. September 2016.

Leg 2. Pacific Northwest islands. October 2016.

Leg 2. Pacific Northwest islands. October 2016.

Leg 2. Me snapping some pics of this gorgeous fox in the Pacific Northwest islands. Credit: Jenifer Chiodo, October 2016

Leg 2. Me snapping some pics of this gorgeous fox in the Pacific Northwest islands. Credit: Jenifer Chiodo, October 2016

Leg 3, the third and final leg of my two-week adventure. Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. October 2016.

Leg 3, the third and final leg of my two-week adventure. Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. October 2016.

Going on an adventure is like unwrapping a surprise gift. You don't know exactly what you'll get out of it until you've finished unwrapping the whole thing. But as you unwrap it, bit by bit, you can see hints of the ultimate gift peeking through. But unlike a physical gift, at the end of an adventure you're left with things no one can take away: experience, emotion and memories.

That's my defense of adventure, why I've vowed to never stop exploring. If you're skeptical, give it a try. Spend a day off the grid hiking in a local park you've never before visited. Or even in a part of your city or town you've never spent time in. Bring a friend, or go alone. Get lost a little and don't worry about time, just focus on the adventure and the gifts you'll uncover at the end.  

Artwork...done!

So that octopus piece I was working on...finally wrapped it up this week. Feedback is welcome, and if you'd like to purchase it or another piece, please reach out by email (scroll to the bottom of this page).

-ELC

Octopus & Co. Erica Cirino July 2016

Octopus & Co. Erica Cirino July 2016

Are misinformed, well-meaning humans the biggest danger to animals?

How can people trying to do right do so much wrong?

Baby bison, like that park rangers decided to kill at Yellowstone National Park in May after two well-meaning humans tried to "help" him.  Credit: Skeeze (Pixabay.com)

Baby bison, like that park rangers decided to kill at Yellowstone National Park in May after two well-meaning humans tried to "help" him. Credit: Skeeze (Pixabay.com)

While the humans of the world vocalize their opinions on the decision to shoot 17-year-old endangered silverback gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo last week, another controversial wildlife story seemingly vanished out of the news…and people’s minds: The decision to kill a newborn bison at Yellowstone National Park after a father and son Shamasha and Shekeel Kassam loaded the baby animal into the trunk of their truck because they thought its mother had abandoned it.

"We didn't have the heart to just leave it there and let it suffer as the darkness descended," Shakeel explained during an interview Friday on ABC’s Good Morning America. "I wasn't 100-percent sure but when I saw the calf outside shaking, I felt this was the right thing to do."

After father and son brought the baby to a park office, rangers reportedly tried to reintroduce it to its mother and herd. According to a press statement issued by the National Park Service, “These efforts failed. The bison calf was later euthanized.” 

Killing wild animals isn’t something zookeepers or park rangers take lightly. It’s the inappropriate intervention of human beings in human-engineered environments into the lives of wild animals that resulted in two sad endings to two animals’ lives. Should we keep wild animals in zoos? Should we keep wild animals in parks? These are important questions we should be asking ourselves in light of these two completely human-created catastrophes.

While a national park is wilder than the enclosure in a zoo, it’s not exactly pristine wilderness. Anywhere there are, humans—whether it’s at a zoo or in a suburban backyard—humans and animals will inevitably interact with one another in some way.

Some interactions can help animals’ survival, like leaving bird food out for wild migrants in the wintertime. Or, they can harm animals’ survival, like separating a newborn bison from its mother or yelling and screaming when a young boy climbs into a gorilla’s exhibit at a zoo. The last two scenarios, as we’ve all learned in the past few weeks, can prove deadly for the animals humans chose to interact with.

A male Western (silverback) gorilla, like Harambe, in a zoo exhibit.  Credit: Brocken Inaglory (Wikimedia.org)

A male Western (silverback) gorilla, like Harambe, in a zoo exhibit. Credit: Brocken Inaglory (Wikimedia.org)

As a science writer and licensed wildlife rehabber, I see or hear about human-animal interactions on a near-daily basis. Before I took to writing full-time, I worked in a wildlife hospital in New York as a clinic assistant—cleaning, feeding and administering medical treatments to orphaned, sick and injured wild creatures. It was there, in the hospital, that I encountered my very own Yellowstone baby-bison situation. Due to my geographic location, instead of a bison calf, the situation involved a newborn deer.

It was late afternoon on a humid August day. The volunteers had left about an hour ago, this being the summer where injured animals seem to fall out of the sky, the staff still had a lot to do after our 8am-4pm “work day” ended: there were baby animal feedings, cage cleanings and medications to administer. Finally, at about 5pm, all animals were cared and accounted for, so we readied to leave for the day.

I was washing syringes in the aluminum exam room sink when my director charged through the door, her face red and streaked with sweat, lips tight and brows curled in frustration. There was a large cardboard box in her arms, from which emanated a loud, desperate cry not unlike that of a baby human.

Behind the door I could see a park ranger, clad in a New York State Park-green polo shirt and mud-streaked khaki pants. He stood next to a sobbing woman in a sundress, who was clutching a hand of a wide-eyed teenager, who appeared to be her son.

“We just saw him alone and crying,” said the woman between heavy gasps of air.

“Just fill out the form, please,” my director coolly called to the woman. Then she turned to me and thrust into my arms the mysterious crying box. “Take him outside while I figure this out,” she whispered through gritted teeth.

I used my hip to push open the decrepit old door that led to the yard. Once outside, I placed the box down gingerly in the shade, sat down next to it and then peeled open its flaps. Inside was a crying, wobbly fawn, introduced to the world not more than an hour or two earlier, his umbilical cord still hanging from his belly.

I met his enormous, dark brown eyes with my own and saw both confusion and fear. Thinking he’d like to stretch his legs, I plucked him from the box and placed him on the grass. He wobbled a lot, unable to find his footing. This only made him cry louder, more desperately.

This was the first time I had ever been close to a baby anything so young. Human moms, I knew, picked up their babies—providing warmth and touch—to comfort them, to let them know everything is okay. I looked down at the wobbling, crying fawn for a moment, and then scooped him up in my arms. Immediately, he stopped crying.

It felt like I stood there an hour with the now-quiet fawn in my arms, waiting for someone to tell me what to do with him. I knew my director was looking for a place that would take him so he wouldn’t have to be euthanized. Under New York State law, wildlife hospitals aren’t allowed to do anything beyond providing basic first aid to deer, which are believed to be a nuisance species in the state. This means no long-term care, and certainly no rearing orphaned fawns. Despite this, some rehabbers and clinics skirt the law.

Finally, my director did come outside. She told me she found someone to take him in, then explained what had happened: The woman and her son were hiking in the park where our hospital was based. They saw the baby and its mother off a trail in a clearing. When they approached, the mother bolted. They called the park staff to come and help. The park ranger, unsure of what to do, boxed the baby and brought him to our hospital. 

A newborn fawn like that I watched over.  Credit: Jerry Segraves (Wikimedia.org)

A newborn fawn like that I watched over. Credit: Jerry Segraves (Wikimedia.org)

Exactly what—as in the case of the baby bison, but also any other uninjured baby animal—you are not supposed to do. While mothers may temporarily leave their babies if humans approach, they almost always come back. In some cases, such as with rabbits, mothers routinely leave their young unsupervised when looking for food or defending their territory.

The best thing you can do for animals is to know what to do: If you find a baby that seems healthy (i.e. not bleeding or lifeless), let it be. Come back several hours later if you are concerned. See if mom has swooped, hopped or trotted back to baby. And do realize that on occasion mother animals do abandon their babies. It’s a fact of nature.

Whether or not the baby bison was truly abandoned, we will likely never know. It’s possible, as park rangers posited, that his mother might have purposely left him. More likely, however, it appears human intervention is to blame for scaring off mama bison. Rangers opted against placing the baby with a rehabber because it would be costly—requiring a quarantine facility to house the baby bison for a lengthy period before it could be cleared to leave the park. (For this, rangers say, you can blame Yellowstone bison’s history of brucellosis, a disease that can cause mother bison, elk and cattle to miscarry.) Supposedly without an alternative, Yellowstone park rangers killed him.

I never found out what happened to the newborn fawn. My director, visibly infuriated by the situation, never again brought it up. And, not wanting to rehash her anger, I never asked. I can only hope his progeny are never disturbed or displaced by misinformed, yet well-meaning, humans.