Monthly Archives: January 2010

Surama: rainbow land

Bird watchin’ at 6am

“Wanna climb Surama mountain to a look-out?”


“Who would like to climb the mountain with Miss Julie?”

pause, then one hand goes up, then all

a few mangoes later,

a rabble of children and us three adults set off

through green forest web

chased by spider monkeys tossing down branches

to look out over charming Surama

and many surrounding mountains

steep descent back onto savannah

then to misguided wildlife sanctuary

where the puma paces

hope he is released soon

capuchin monkey presses his back to the mesh to be petted

clivlin, the young tapir, & me hang out

we rub his itchy spots and make sure

he keeps his teeth to himself, sharp below dexterous nose

a few token paddles on the farine parching

i do battle with coconuts for lunch, inefficient deliciousness

i leave a brief check-in with The Net

to be greeted by a rainbow

it crystallizes into a full ark partially doubled, slightly lighter the sky above the forest under the rainbow

rain hits, but low sun still shines through leaves

all sparkles,

light & water, sun & rain.

tree tunnel of light to Surama

off to Surama

in old pickup with a dozen others

and buckets and bags

watching savannah grow to rainforest

the temperature drop when we reach tall trees

the road to Surama a tree tunnel

golden sunset held so gently

                so briefly

                                so tenderly

in translucent green leaves

the tree-tunnel opens to mountain vistas

i can no longer resist the camera


to capture a shot over the beaten tin pickup roof

 of sunset glow behind mountains

walk on PEI-red dirt to Emily’s

                brimming with her family

                                and mangoes

steady drone of generator competes with rasta

i spin green glow poi under full full moon.

a dog

“who’s dog is that?”

“no one’s.”

“what will happen to her”

“that kind of dog should be shot so other dogs won’t get the sickness.”

Light brown, painfully thin, coat rough and patches of fur missing, she spent most of her time lying down, scratching her mange infested ears and rump so the open sores bled.  One story was that while the other dogs were considered to be Bina Hill’s, she was considered a stray.  No one’s responsibility.   Her ears were so bad, they were kept at a strange half-mast position, making her look a bit like a gremlin.  So I dubbed her Gizmo.

“you’re worried about that dog.”



“she’s suffering.”


“so I care about suffering.  anyone’s suffering.”

That a dog should count in our moral calculus was politely tolerated in public, who knows what was said later.  Like with the glue traps and mice in Georgetown, me caring about the suffering of an animal was considered weird. 

“so no one will care if i get the vet to either treat her or kill her?”



The vet assistant showed up to use the phone.

“i have a dog for you to see.”

“OK, just now.”

Diagnosis was severe mange that was getting secondarily infected, and worms to explain her skeletal frame.  He gave her a subcutaneous injection of Ivermectin for the inner & outer parasites and a Vitamin shot, then an intramuscular injection of antibiotic.  The whole veterinary intervention cost $600 GYD, about $3 CAD.  I also learned about the recommended vaccinations for dogs in this area, and confirmed the epidemic I saw in Yupukari n 2006 was distemper.  The antibiotic had to be jabbed into her rump muscle, which hurt and caused her to yelp and escape from these treacherous humans.  She forgave me later when I fed her. 

That afternoon, she became the focus of my lesson on Observation.  One type of observation relevant for budding wildlife managers is to be able to observe an individual animal carefully.  We went through what to look for to assess an animal’s health.  Most of the students said she was just an old dog, but I pointed out how her eyes were clear, nose good, and teeth in great condition.  She didn’t look old to me, just sick.  Turns out she is quite old for a dog here, 5 ro 6, maybe even 9 yrs old, and survived the distemper epidemic in 2006.  The students took more interest in this ignored dog now that they had to observe her carefully.  I got them to compare her to a healthy dog.

Now I wait to see how the treatments go, which can also teach my students about measuring change over time.  I wonder if my $3 investment will have a Lazarus effect on her, and increase empathy in the students.

addictive iwokrama field station

I decided to spend part (or all) of the weekend back at the Iwokrama field station. Friday was Andy’s birthday, and lots of Iwokrama folks were converging at the Field Station for a tour guide refresher course. Now that I was suddenly teaching the Wildlife Management course, this was a great opportunity to try to get advice and resources. The tourism folks from NRDDB were going, so I tagged along on the Intraserv bus. R & I got dropped at Oasis (close to the upscale RockView lodge where scruffy wanna-be researchers like me can’t afford to stay), a rest stop a 10 min drive away where the Intraserv bus stops, a bit of a travel hub. Chatted a bit with a chap who had just done jungle survival training near Surama, a village I can’ t wait to visit. The climax of the course is to spend two days alone in the forest. It was quite the site to see all these white men troupe onto the bus with their blow-darts and bows and arrows they had bought as souvenirs as carry-on. I joked with R that security on the Rupununi’s Intraserv bus sure was different from that of a plane headed to the US!!! I dozed during the trip through the rainforest. It was great to be back at Iwokrama. Especially for the shower! There are water problems at Bina Hill, and the evening before, the water had to be pumped from a well that turned out to be contaminated, so they had to pump out the water to clean it. So Iwokrama was luxury to me, I got to take a shower! Also, poor Margaret, the cook at Bina Hill, is having some trouble making stuff I can actually eat. The milk allergy isn’t a problem, but being allergic to tomatoes and vegetarian has been a bit more tricky. And the menu is just generally more limited than at Iwokrama Field Station. So more luxury was C’s awesome food. Then onwards to b-day cake for Andy, which I lived vicariously through others since it had milk in it. J made a nice fire to sit by near the river, so a bunch of us hung out there sipping El Dorado, chatting, and playing with my propeller LED glow poi. Yep, no need for batteries, except the propellers break really easily. Which is why Nick stocked me with dozens of replacement propellers. The only thing missing was singing, I missed my capoeira family, there’s no way a fire would have escaped our music, even if it were just our voices and clapping.

After such a lovely time back at Iwokrama, I was optimistic that everything would be just fine about me sleeping in a hammock. It was a busy night, so no beds were available. Back in 2006, I tried to get used to sleeping in a hammock, but was pretty hopeless at it, ended up on a bedroll on the floor in Nappi, and lucked into a bed at Yupukari. But I was enchanted by the idea that with my hammock & mosquito net under my arm, I was good to go anywhere and have a place to stay. The first problem was that my hammock-neighbour was watching Bourne Identity on his laptop, and I couldn’t find my earplugs to drown it out. Finally that was over, but now I wasn’t so sleepy. Then it started to get cold. Then the ants started biting me. Although it was nothing like the Ant Attack poor Andy suffered the night before, it was enough to keep me awake. Then I could feel something even larger crawling on me. Which turned out to be a cockroach. Fed up with everyone else’s blissful snoring, I got up and worked in the Field Station main building since there are lights in there, and was kept company by many bats and a frog that lives in the corner of Angie’s office. In the end, I slept less than an hour.

Predictably, my brain was not working to well the next morning. Unpredictably, I had an epiphany about my research: why not use the Bina Hill cohort as a sample for my study? These are young people who are interested in the environment, but only some of them had the opportunity to be in wildlife clubs. So I could compare the knowledge, beliefs, values, and intended behavior towards the environment of Wildlife Club alumni vs. those who didn’t get to be in a wildlife club. I was excited enough to work on this idea, rather than roam around the forest or take a nap The next two nights I was back in my old room, so I slept.

I went to parts of the tour guide refresher course, a highlight being the walk through the forest Raquel took us on to improve our plant identification skills and learn about the properties and uses of the trees and other plants. My favourite find was the resin of the Haiawa, which has a lovely smell and in burnt as incense and to repel mosquitoes, and the burnt resin can be used as waterproof pitch to fix boats. A good point was that ecotourists often want to see animals, and that can’t be guaranteed. But if you know your plants, every tree can tell an interesting story so the tourist should still be happy at the end of the tour, whether or not any charismatic megafauna were sighted. A highlight for me was learning about the forest fauna from Wally Prince. I wish I could download all the Wildlife and Wildlife Management info in his brain, and use it to teach my wildlife management class!monkey ladder

running towards dawn

Waking up at 4:50am to run was not as excruciating as I thought it would be. The knock on my wooden window came promptly at 5am “Miss, Miss, you coming Miss???” I mumbled some inarticulate assent and stumbled out.

It was dark. Spectacular stars, yes. Enough light to see where the heck I was going, no.  But I ran. I kept a girl in view, almost the only form I could see.

“You’re all crazy,” I hissed. They just laughed.

“Crazy, crazy, CRAZ-Eeee!!”

Hitting a puddle shut me up. I learned to recognize the slight gleam to avoid other ones. And soon all was good, only sounds our feet hitting the ground, our breath, some birds and bugs. Only stars above and faint outlines of fellow runners near me and mountains far away. And I just had to trust my feet to keep going one step in front of the other, and that this would carry me to the unseen but known destination: the junction with the main Road.

We paused at the junction, stretched a little and back we ran to the compound. Then onwards to the Big Benab (round structure with an Ité palm thatch roof) where the Bina Hill students get their classes. We took over the main room to stretch and exercise. After a few stretches lead by a student, they put me on the spot, they wanted to do some capoeira and yoga stretches. I threw in some nasty abs for good measure.

Then they went off  to work in the garden. Which is why they get up so early to exercise.  Sure it’s dark, but the temperature is right, and they have to get to work in the garden by 6am, so this is how they squeeze in some training. I went up to the second floor of the Benab to do sun salutations, literally, since I could face the dawn. And watch the panorama view of the savannah and distant mountains come to light.

rainforest to savannah

It was hard to leave the Iwokrama (“Refuge”) Field Station, it is so beautiful!  But Bina Hill is the hub for research in the Rupununi, its close to key communities, and lots of young people who used to be in Wildlife Clubs are going to school there.  So it was time to shift from the lovely rainforest to the breezy savannah near Annai (“Corn”).  I hitched a ride with the patrol, which picks up garbage along the road and keeps track of what they pick up, as well as what wildlife they spot.  So it was a long & sweaty ride, but free and great company!

I arrived, and tried to get oriented in my new digs.   Lots of young people and Elders on the North Rupununi District Development Board, a community radio station – the palce is buzzing. The compound has the Bina Hill Institute itself, a secondary school, housing for students and teachers, and a huge two story benab where classes are held.  The upper floor was MADE for capoeira, hard wood, gorgeous view, all in a circle.  A new tourist attraction perhaps, roda on the Rupununi?  So of course I was trying it out, and turns out one student trained capoeira for a few months.  This also lead to me being invited to run & exercise the next morning.

It was high time to work off all those bakes I’d been eating, so I eagerly accepted.

“What time?” “5am.” “Pardon, could you tell me what time again, it sounded like you said 5am.”  “Yes, 5am”  “5am.” “Yes, 5am.”  “Really?” “Yes.”  “Are you sure?” Laughter.

The students have lots to do before class in the morning, so they run & exercise from 5-6am, then garden or clean until 8am, then classes start at 9am. 

So I set my alarm for 4:50am, told them to knock on my window, and went to bed…

rainforest paradise

There was so much to do before getting on to the big Intraserve bus to make my way back to the North Rupununi.  My last time in was 16hrs in the back of a Bedford truck with 12 other victims and all our gear.  So really, anything would be better.

Unlike everything else on Guyanese Flex Time, the Intraserve bus actually left early, 8:30pm instead of 9pm!  Less than half full, so J, Iwokrama’s Tourism manager, and I were able to take over two seats each.  I still didn’t sleep much.  I was surprised how much of the rainforest I could see out the window, those headlights are amazing!

Iwokrama Field Station is AWESOME, river, trees, birds… we were greeted around 8am by a fabulous view from the main building, bakes for breakfast, friendly folks…. In short, a rainforest paradise.

J took me on a short hike in the rainforest next to the Field Station that afternoon, which finished by the dock.  And there was Shankir, Iwokrama’s three legged “pet” black caiman.  At 12 feet long, he is not to be trusted.

the once and future mouse

There are times in life when you feel like you have utterly failed. Today there was terrible suffering and I failed to prevent it, failed to alleviate it quickly enough, and failed to do anything decent and respectful afterward. Taking a hard look at yourself and your world can come from anywhere, from a tragedy, from a beautiful experience, from a conversation. For me, the spark has often been: a mouse.

I started my PhD in the hopes of studying humane education. The broader way to think of humane education is it is intended to increase empathy and compassion towards all living beings. This view encourages us to see the inextricable links between social justice, animal welfare, and a healthy environment. But I knew the setting where I wanted to do my research and eventually, to live: Guyana, South America. But I have not found any humane education programs here, and over time I made connections to an inspiring environmental education program developed and maintained by indigenous Makushi people. And so by the time I came here on this reconnaissance visit in preparation for the eventual research, I had to put aside my dreams of learning what effective humane education looks like, and focus on understanding the forms of environmental education that already exist here.

But there is a tiny corpse in the left part of my peripheral vision that must hold me to not stray too far from my dream. Because it is clear that it is suffering that I want to reduce. Anyone’s suffering.

The more I live, the more baffled I am that human beings have been given such extraordinary power over other life forms on this planet. Once we toiled to obtain our food and shelter, which came from animals and plants. I don’t want to romanticize that past, but it did involve a deep understanding and respect for these other species, these other ways of being in this world. Now, upon a whim, to satisfy wants and not needs, millions of animals suffer in factory farms, and thousands of plant & animal species have become extinct due to habitat loss and the bushmeat trade.

So much suffering is so unnecessary.

There is the inescapable truth that every human, just like every other living being, needs a certain amount of resources to survive, and ideally, to thrive. Each of us takes up a certain amount of space, and we humans can choose both the quantity and quality of that space. When it comes to the physical resources needed to sustain us, each day is full of decisions: Will I buy fruit from a local farmer who takes good care of her land, or from some nameless agribusiness? Turn off the tap while I brush my teeth or leave the water running? Refuse to buy meat produced by factory farms, or buy the cheaper fast food? Buy that cheap plastic gadget from China that will be thrown out, or the locally made handiwork? Each of these choices may seem, individually, to be trivial, of no consequence. But collectively, our individual actions have created the world the way it is now.

Are you happy with the way the world is now? I’m not. There is so much suffering, so much inequality.

But the world is also a beautiful, marvelous, and inspiring place, and so I have hope. Hope that not only can much of the suffering today be ended, but hope also that all of us can live more, can thrive and flourish. In other words, I believe it is possible to reduce suffering AND increase joy.

So let me tell you about Today’s mouse. Georgetown, Guyana, 2010. I’d been in the backyard with my host as he fed the two dogs, which included a complex array of supplements, and picked pawpaws. I ate one of the pawpaws, then settled in at the kitchen table to do some work before dinner. When finally a tiny figure caught my eye. The mouse lay on her side, fur torn out in places, covered with a sheen of glue, and with a sickening feeling, I realized what those cardboard rectangles in the kitchen were: glue traps. This must be one of the most ghastly inventions, and one of the cruelest ways possible to kill an animal. Once caught in the glue, the mouse struggles to get free, losing fur, possibly ripping of skin too, until, terrified but exhausted, the mouse is still. Based on the number of droppings behind this mouse, I could tell she had been terrified and stuck there for some time. Time slowed, the only movement was her labored breathing, as I tried to figure out what to do, while simultaneously my cell was ringing. My host returned and I showed him. He was about to leave, and said he would deal with it later. “But the mouse is still alive. Its suffering.” I considered a cervical dislocation (neck-breaking), but would need a glove for my own safety and realized I may do a bad job since the mouse was stuck in the glue. “What do you suggest?” he asked. “Blunt trauma.” A nice way to say bash the little skull in. So my host got a shoe. 

When the cardboard rectangle was moved out in the open, the mouse began to struggle again, to try to escape. The first strike was mislaid, the glue making it difficult. So was the second. The third may have cracked the skull, but it was finally the fourth that was certain, and the convulsive kicks off the hind legs confirmed death. “His life is ebbing away,” commented my host, who seemed bemused though sympathetic to my obvious distress about the glue traps and the suffering and death of this particular mouse. I learned the glue traps have become popular here. What can I do? Why aren’t the more humane snap traps being used? And why haven’t ultrasound deterrent technologies been perfected as a humane way to keep mice and rats away?

The image is so terrible, let us take a break from it.

So now let me tell you about Yesterday’s mouse. Montreal, Canada, 2002. I was just about to move out of my downtown apartment to live with my then boyfriend in Ottawa. I woke up, drifted into the kitchen without my glasses on. I noticed a brown form in the water in the sink, and, squinting at it, realized it was a mouse. “That’s sad,” I thought, “a mouse drowned in my sink.” Then she moved, and I realized the tiny creature was still alive and had survived by clinging to a yogurt container lid. I awoke my boyfriend, we put tissue in a big ice cream tub, found a glove, and I offered my gloved hand to the little soaked creature. She climbed onto my hand, and I placed her gently into the container.

We had three choices: kill her, release her to be vermin in someone else’s apartment, or keep her.

We kept her.

I learned so much from her and the tame friend we got for her, and put my prejudices aside based on real experience with her, rather than on my assumptions.

Now back to Georgetown, where I try to write with Today’s bedraggled dead mouse in view. My host’s granddaughter begins to watch Ratatouille, and I am drawn into the story, a funny and clever account of a gifted rat who longs to be a chef. I wonder if it improves viewers attitudes towards rats? The film puts them in a positive light, and the message is important: not to write anyone off, and to have an open mind. And so that same old question again: why am I researching humane or environmental education when the arts are probably our best bet to promote humane treatment of animals? Why not write anti-glue trap songs and try to become a pop star? Is it possible that exposure to a few minutes or hours of art can do more than days and months of classes?

Then Ms. E comes back with a mission: to fry bakes tonight for breakfast tomorrow. Her method is a bit different from the way I was taught, and I enjoy learning from her. Then another bedraggled mouse appears, stumbling and confused, in the brightly lit kitchen. I steer this mouse towards a closed door to the outside, and she is able to escape. But I say to Ms. E that this mouse must be sick or injured, a mouse would never come out in the light like that, and she seemed to be limping and confused.

And this leads us to Tomorrow’s mouse: will it be Ratatouille or the poor little injured sick mouse slipping out the kitchen door? Will we use our human ingenuity to work on humane ways to control nuisance animals, or continue the cruel status quo? It’s our choice.

art vs. the guyanese maternal police

No matter how I try to get lots of work done, people, joy, and glitches get in the way.  On Tuesday, my determined efforts to finish a chunk of my thesis proposal met a formidable opponent: Karl Kulle.   The Iwokrama office closes at 5pm, so if I need to use wireless internet on my netbook in the evening, I go to Herdmanston Lodge, the delightful hotel run by my hosts’ daughter, Dee, and tuck myself away on a breezy veranda.  Dee offered me a ride home, but then got delayed.  Then as we were heading out, she introduced me to a guest, Karl, she had mentioned because of his interest in art, music, and Earth.  Over an hour later, we escaped the benevolent and fascinating vortex that is Karl and his Spanish traveling companions, and I was reprimanded by both Auntie Edna AND her sister when I finally got home because they had been worried about me.  It was like being 16 again and coming home after curfew.

The Guyanese Maternal Police cracked down again the next morning, when I was sent back to iron my capris because they looked “all crushy”.  A certain beloved Guyanese woman I lost this summer probably wouldn’t have let me out of the house looking like that, either.

spoiled in Georgetown

I’m so spoiled here in Georgetown. Things are slowly coming together for my plans to go into the field, everyone at the Iwokrama Office has been so helpful. There is now a capoeira group in Georgetown, so I got to train today at this lovely breezy spot and the guys have great axe (energy). Then I come home to a feast and a lecture on Guyanese lingo and mangoes!