Books + knowledge = Danger

It’s been an interesting and chaotic week. Had a great morning out on a sage grouse lek, watching and listening as the male grouse strutted and smacked each other. No hens at the lek yet, but it’s early in the breeding season. Never had any good direct light that morning (it was heavy overcast) so my photos aren’t great. The best part was getting to see a ferruginous hawk swoop in and try to take a grouse (sorry but the photos weren’t good enough to post). The ferrg failed, but it was a thrilling try!

My children’s book publisher, Boyds Mills Press, sent me the layout for my next book with them, “The Guardian Team.” I’ll share it when I can, but take my word for it that it’s beautiful. It features the true story of livestock guardian dog Rena, the wild burro we adopted and named Roo, and the half-dozen orphan lambs these two raised together.

I spent most of the week slaving away on a book proposal, and that gets put in the mail tomorrow. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the book will find a happy publishing home. It’s on pastoralism, is proposed as a photo essay, and is my second non-fiction title for adults.

My first non-fiction title got some attention this week as well. The book was released in October 2008, and is called “Yellowstone Wolves: A Chronicle of the Animal, the People, and the Politics.” It’s a fully footnoted history of Wyoming’s wolves, and the files that were used as references are now in the permanent collection at the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming.

Seems like the book would have been a natural title for sales in bookstores in and around Yellowstone, doesn’t it? But book sales within our national parks are controlled by “educational, non-profit institutions” in partnership with the National Park Service. Books sold by the non-profits must be approved by the park service. Apparently the park service doesn’t like my book and recommended it not be sold in Yellowstone, I was told today, “because some of the information in the book was not based on verifiable facts.”

I laughed out loud at that claim. The fact is, the book makes the park service uncomfortable because the agency doesn’t come across in a positive way, so they’ve blackballed it. Not for sale in the park, and the influence has spread to at least one other “educational institution” that works with the park, where I was pretty much dis-invited from a book event.

It’s depressing that unless my books tout the official policy line of the government, my books won’t appear in my neighborhood national park – one that gets more than 3 million visitors a year, offering the opportunity for substantial book sales. So please, people, support banned books! Unlike the park service and its “educational association” counterparts, here’s what some reviewers had to say:

“Yellowstone Wolves is a lively and carefully documented account of the use and abuse of science, multiple levels of politics, interpretations of the law, administration of justice, rural sociology, media, and unbridled propaganda as provided from all sides of a hideously complex subject. This book is a chronologically based, practical documentation, and the author’s personal commitment to the issues is profound. … Particularly interesting is the book’s unflinching insistence that agencies of the federal government represent the most important impediments to application of ‘best available science’ within specific issues of conservation biology.” –Jason A. Lillegraven, Professor Emeritus, Departments of Geology/Geophysics and Zoology/Physiology, The University of Wyoming, 1/11/09

“Urbigkit’s undeniably thorough treatment of the subject, featuring impressive historical documentation, makes this book one that no serious conservationist should overlook.” –Foreword Magazine – Reviews of Good Books Independently Published, Jan/Feb. 2009

“Cat [has] shown us the unimaginable interplay of biology, politics, factionalism, economics, and emotion that may revolve around the recognition, management, and political manipulation of an endangered species. . . . She has demonstrated the complexity and anguish of wolf conservation and provided a unique perspective on a fascinating story.” –Ronald M. Nowak, Zoologist

“Yellowstone Wolves provides a wonderful example of how wilderness management issues such as the reintroduction of a predator quickly become ‘wicked’ problems, involving multiple truths, conflicting science, bureaucratic and political pressures, special interest groups, concerned members of the public, and the legal system. On the wolf issue in Yellowstone, Urbigkit notes the government agencies have their own agenda, and change their policies and procedures to ensure this agenda is met. …Urbigkit provides a valuable service by highlighting the political nature of decision making and the troubling self-selection of science to serve bureaucratic and political ends in wilderness, park, and wildlife management.” — John Shultis, IJW book editor, August 2009, International Journal of Wilderness.

‘This book is an invaluable and unique addition to the story of wolves in the greater Yellowstone area.’ — Elaine Jones Hayes, Laramie County Library System, from Wyoming Library Roundup, Fall/Winter 2009.

On the bright side, I’m proud to join the ranks of authors with banned books.

Real Zoo # 4

Me on “My Scars”, or “Julian’s Dogs”.

It was said that at a reunion (that none of us attended) that there was a scar show. Mine, at least the ones I still have all these years later, are not from the wolf or the alligators or even the otters or the gibbon who TRIED.

“I was afraid enough of Shyly that he never got me. Careful with Kim but she bit me anyway (I bit her back and she mostly played nice after).

“Worst things that hurt me were Richard’s tossing me a shit encrusted paint scraper (infected cut on hand–ER sewed me up and it went off anyway; [vet] Dr S fixed it; still have scar).

“And scariest: night guard Julian’s out of control German shepherds (he used to brag how they put his little girl in the hospital).

“One night, thinking he had them under control (I was alone on exile at night because of that microphone incident), I went to drain the pool of the little African clawless otters. I was halfway back to the rotunda when I heard the dogs running behind me. Turns out the old drunk had passed out.

“In one of the few times in my life that I thought fast, I realized I would never get through the door, so I slammed it towards me and hung on to the handle for dear life, YELLING for Julian and for a visiting friend. They hit my legs hard in the next second– it was more like being hit with a baseball bat than being bitten, and I have been bitten a lot. One was sort of worrying me, and I felt that if I fell, I was dead.

“Julian and Mike got to me in what must have been seconds but felt like minutes. There were a bunch of superficial cuts and a dime- sized hole in my shin with bone showing– luckily somehow no major vessels seemed to be spouting. I literally do not remember and it is not in my general style but Mike says I told Julian that if I ever saw the dogs loose again I would “get my .38 and kill his ass”.

“As I had already paid the ER for the scraper fiasco without reimbursement, I elected to just clean it, though I think I had Bill S look at it– trusted him more. As you can imagine there is still a pit in my leg you can put a finger in, 40+ years later.

“We were innocents. If something like that happened today I’d own the ZOO!”

There will be more– next, OS on baby squirrels. I may add zoo digressions too– Betsy and her breeding margays, the first, with photos, or “some people CAN keep animals” (and her amazing TV appearance with Roger Caras).

To be continued…

Real Zoo # 3

Other Steve on the two baby black leopards, and television.

(I– Steve B– found the cubs, still very small when Annie first introduced them to me, rather intimidating, unlike the much bigger but almost doglike, playful young tiger. They weren’t so much malevolent as little forces of nature, like animated thorn bushes who BIT. Hard. (Betsy Huntington on margays, on TV: “Yes, they bite. EVERYTHING bites. I bite!”) I should add that Annie who raised them loved them and got affection back. Me they bit– and as I reminded her yesterday, once you picked one up, putting it down was like trying to get off animate Velcro).


Nobody wanted to do [kid’s] TV, especially Major M, so I was ordered to go. After a while, I got to really like the Major. He really understood animals and was a terrific guy.

He sympathized with the “bad pet” theme that we always tried to get across and, one day, because all the local ghetto kids wanted to buy a black panther, I decided to take Dudley on his show. This was a bit audacious, taking a six-month old black leopard on a kiddie show, but Dudley, unlike his sister Denise, was really slow in the head. I could always see his intentions before he did anything, so, I figured that, even though he was unusually big for his age, I could handle him.

The stage hands helped me bring the stainless steel cage up from the loading dock and into the studio. When the segment started, the cage was on the floor. I opened the door and tried to coax Dudley out, but he was frozen – in a mild state of shock from all the lights and cameras. So I reached in and grabbed his scruff and slid him out onto the floor. He still hadn’t moved. Bob and I knelt down on either side of him. Right away, Bob says, Now, Steve, Dudley doesn’t seem to be having any fun being here. In fact, he doesn’t look happy at all. Why is that?” (He was great at knowing what you’d want to say and he’d feed you cues to start your spiel.) “No, Major, leopards are wild animals and they are not really comfortable in situations like this, blah, blah, blah.”

This went on for a while. It was a perfect show. I was getting exactly what I was hoping to get out of it. Then Dudley suddenly, quietly, turned his head to the side 45 degrees and chomped down hard on Bob’s ankle, then froze into his new position. We both stared at him for a second, not wanting to do anything drastic in front of the cameras. Then Bob said, calmly, “Now, can you see what Dudley has done, kids? He’s biting my ankle and it’s very painful. Tell us why he did that, Steve.” “Well, Major, as we were saying, he’s a wild animal and he’s scared in unnatural surroundings. He’s really at home in the forest. This is the reason why a black leopard makes a really bad pet.” “Well, we can see that, can’t we kids? So, if kids want to have a pet, what should they do?” “Well, Major, the Animal Rescue League has lots of dogs, blah, blah, blah.”

When we broke for the commercial, I pried Dudley’s jaws off Bob’s ankle and got him back in the cage. There was blood seeping out of his boot and he said, “Well, that went very well. I think you really got your message across.” It was true. The squealing kids really shut up when Dudley chomped his leg. They REALLY paid attention after that.

It was the most successful TV show I ever did, but I realized that I had taken much too big a chance. As I got back in the truck, I said to myself, “Next time I’ll bring a safer animal like Corey the Tapir.”

(Zoonote: Remember the Great Tapir Caper? [SB: Yes, and we will get to THAT debacle– already have plenty of material, & getting more])

When I left the studio, it was already dark and I realised that, in rush hour traffic, it’d take forever to get to the zoo, so I drove across the river to my apartment. I went upstairs and asked Cathy to come down and help me with something. She came down and looked into the back of the van, which was all dark. She peered into the cage and could only see two yellow eyes. “What’s that?” “That’s Dudley” So we carried the cage up three flights of stairs. My next door neighbour who always seemed to come out her door at the wrong moment, opened her door, screamed and went back in.

Cathy was always amazing with animals; still is. She’d never met Dudley, but we dragged him out and put him on the couch. I gently stroked his ruff, as he was still in a state of mild shock and I wanted to warm him up. Cathy got him a dish of milk and was putting it in front of him when he suddenly came to life. He tore the corner off the couch, leaped about seven feet to the drapes, tearing them down. Then he tore the cord out of the TV. He was crushing the alarm clock when I got my hands on him and muscled him into the cage. That was the end of the excitement for the day.

After that, my neighbour saw me bring Vinnie the [King] Vulture in the house once and, after she saw me with a boa around my neck one day, she moved out.

(Steve B again: One more, on why some domestic animals at the zoo may be worse pets than leopards…)

Real Zoo #2: Volunteer’s First Day

My old zoo group has responded so enthusiastically that I have enough material to fill the blog with nothing else for a while. I will restrain myself, but at least start with some of this irresistible material from Other Steve, who last gave us The Law, and a bit from me about what animal I worked with actually turned out to be dangerous. OS:

First Day / Last Day

“Excuse me, you’re the new volunteer, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m Monica.”

“I’m Steve. Has Richard mentioned that you shouldn’t stick your hand in the gibbon cage?”

“Yes, but I felt so bad for them having to be in this small cage in the rotunda all winter, I thought I’d give Shyly a little scratch on his back.”

“I know, it’s really tempting, but it can be very dangerous. Maybe, you’d better…”

“But he really seems to like it.”

“I’m sure he does, but Lady is his mate and, believe me, she’ll get very jealous. Gibbons have very long canines and…”

“I know, but I really feel that I’ve developed a special bond with them. Maybe it’s just that nobody else understands……”


“I’ll take you to the hospital, Monica.”

(Notes back from me to the group on that memorable gibbon:

“Shyly, jeez. He fell in the lagoon once and Eric D and I jumped in. We were not fools (and pretty strong). We each grabbed a hand and stretched him between us to throw him back on the island.

“And he began without much effort to sort of close his hands and draw us together like somebody working out on a bowflex machine.

“Teeth bared. Grinning.

“We got him on the island, barely. And decided maybe next time we should let him drown or at least go under twice first. I mean, I’m not that big– but ERIC? [who weighed about 300 pounds]

“I had to clean his island at the end of my night shift (in waders with a fire hose) and he was always waiting. Really the only evil thing there but for [night guard] Julian’s “they put my daughter in the hospital!” dogs. The leopards were more like mindless little velociraptors, and Emily [kinkajou/ lycanthrope] mentally ill– Shyly was smart enough to know he was in prison and hate his jailers. Working with him was like being a guard in Walpole [State Prison].”)

Steve’s Law: Tales From the Real Zoo # 1

Far Away and VERY Long Ago, in a zoo on a most distant coast, a bunch of young people worked in a big(gish) municipal zoo. Annie D, who introduced me to Betsy of Querencia (who volunteered there, but I didn’t know her then), and who often comments here, was one, and I was another. We often get together online and tell tales of those wild days forty- some years past, together with our far- flung former colleagues Paul, Glen, and Other Steve.

The stories are rude and funny and speak truth about what happens where humans and animals meet– obviously a subject of interest to Q- Blog and its readers. We have decided to start up an open- ended series of old tales, beginning with a universal rule of animal handling, courtesy of Other Steve, that I call Steve’s Law.

So: pay attention, volunteers: it is the summer of 1970, our creatively foul- mouthed supervisor Richard is going to give a quiz on your recent studies, and you will fail. Other Steve has been here for a while– listen to him…

“Every year, the new recruits (and especially the volunteers) have to be warned, especially about the primates. To me the tipoff comes when one of them says, “I understand that you have to be careful, but I feel that I have developed a special bond with (Bo, Shyly, Kimba, etc).” [Mt lion, surly plotting gibbon, dominatrix spot- nosed guenon– SB] “That’s when you know that, soon, you will be driving this person to the hospital.

“Special bond = imminent injury.

“Cautious respect = less frequent injury.

“As we all have learned, unless you pick earthworms as your animal of choice, you’re going to leak a little red fluid now and then.”

The Law. To be continued….


Busy– just finished an assignment for Shooting Sportsman, starting two pieces on spec for Double Gun Journal, taking notes for my forthcoming Living Bird review, reading galleys of Pete Dunne’s new installment in his seasonal birding series, Arctic Autumn (outspokenly pro- hunting, among other virtues, and yes, he gets a blurb!)…

But need to thank whoever got Levy’s new “Pleistocene Overkill” book Once & Future Giants from my Wish List, and whoever thought of and sent The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, which also looks close to my heart’s obsessions.

Re Overkill: I am aware Paul Martin, who first conceived of the Pleistocene Blitz: an inspiration to multidisciplinary researchers and to me personally though I only met him once, when he handed me a 12,000 year- old chunk of giant sloth dung; Libby’s brother’s PhD advisor; brave survivor of polio’s effects for over 50 years; controversial proponent of “re- wilding”, and of, in Michael McClure’s and Grayal Farr’s phrase, of Bringing Back the Pleistocene, is dead at 82. I hope I can convince busy Reid to put him in some proper paleontological- archaeological context (he crossed boundaries– Libby’s brother was a palynologist!) But meanwhile: Paul Martin, RIP.