Archive for May, 2009

It took one entire day of travel to reach the Canary Islands.  My plane was to leave LAX sometime after eight a.m.   At 4:15 a.m. I get a call from US Airways that my flight has been delayed 100 minutes and that they will make alternative arrangements instead.  I am very grateful.  After hours at the airport, I end up leaving LAX at 7:10 p.m. on Lufthansa.  I arrive at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands at 1 a.m. two calendar days later, so exhausted I can barely stand.

My one thought is that if the Bush administration really wanted to interrogate putative ” hard” suspects, they need not have bothered with the methods they actually used to “soften” them up.  They could have just taken suspects, deprived them of their water bottles, made them sit for hours on hard plastic chairs at LAX, and then put them on planes to Europe where, calendar days and two connecting flights later, the arriving suspects, dehydrated, jet-lagged, and sleep-deprived, would have confessed to anything. 

The romance of travel simply isn’t what it once was, that’s for sure!


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Canary Islands:Here we come

Last night I drove back to Los Angeles in solitude, except for the CD player pumping out BB King and Guns and Roses, from San Diego where I had posted the first two entries on my blog.  Even though it was midnight, it still took two hours and forty minutes to get back because there was a collision in the fast lane.  It took over thirty minutes to get around it.  There were two tow trucks and at least five police cars, lights flashing.  Without the collision, I would have made great time: two hours and ten minutes.  I noticed that as soon as the cars on the freeway passed the collision scene, they all immediately speeded up to 80 miles an hour.  I won’t say that I did so as well  because I don’t want to incriminate myself.  I guess we all knew that the Highway Patrol was safely behind us.

Anyways, I had much time to think.  I thought about the discussion I had with Linda, Janet’s sister who was visiting San Diego from Saskatchewan.  Linda pointed out that since she started reading food labels to avoid palm oil, there had been a noticeable improvement in her health.  In the past she bought factory-type baked goods which usually contain palm oil.  Now she buys her baked goods from local bakeries that make the goods on the spot, usually the same day, because these are the kinds of places that  do not use palm oil.  She feels healthier and has more energy.  I had noticed something similar. My appetite had lessened since I became very consciencous about avoiding palm oil and I’ve actually lost a few pounds (not easy for a person with an orangutan-size attitude towards food!) without any effort at all.  Once you avoid palm oil, you automatically start avoiding greasy types of  popular food laden with the substance which is a saturated oil and not particularly healthy. You gravitate away from the manufactured food towards the fresh food aisles in the supermarket and to the healthier oils such as olive and canola.  I have also started eating more fresh nuts.

Why are we avoiding palm oil?  Palm oil is the number one cause of forest destruction in Borneo and Sumatra and thus, the worst enemy of  orangutan populations in the wild.  In the province of Central Indonesian Borneo ( Kalimantan Tengah) where I do my orangutan work, the provincial government has a land use plan that will convert twelve million acres of forest to palm oil and other plantations.  This means that virtually all the forests between the coast and the chain of mountains that runs along the interior of Borneo will be destroyed, along with their wild orangutan populations and other wildlife.  I don’t want to belabor the point but it’s somewhat ironic that making a personal commitment to avoid palm oil in order to help save orangutans and their habitat actually helps us lead healthier and better lives, perhaps even longer lives.

I am excited tonight as I write this.  Tomorrow I will be up at five a.m. to go to LAX to catch a flight that will take me to Spain and ultimately to the Canary Islands where I will be speaking at the  Second International Animal Rights Symposium.  Roger and Deborah Fouts will be there; I’ve known them for decades and have admired their work with Washoe, the original “signing” chimpanzee who was taught Ameslan (American Sign Language), the native language of many people in the US.  It’s always a pleasure to see Roger and Deborah.  Once Roger gets on a roll, talking about how we distance ourselves from the great apes, he could be Napoleon exhorting his troops and a stand-up comedian at the same time.  His passion spurs his charisma and sense of outrage at human attitudes towards the great apes.  How can we say that we  are that different from a creature, the chimpanzee, with whom we share 99% of our DNA.  Or even with the orangutan with whom we are 97% genetically similar.

The Canary Islands are one of the few places on this planet that I have lusted to visit ever since I read about them being the practice grounds for Portuguese and Spanish conquest at the end of the Middle Ages.  The Portuguese, and soon the Spaniards,  were the first to tack to the wind so expertly that they could easily get back to their home ports. (This was a problem that the Vikings, skilled seafarers that they were, never quite solved.  They always had a problem getting back. This may be one of the reasons that they were never able to colonize the Americas, despite their indisputable visits there before Columbus).   Before the Spanish entered the Americas, they exterminated the native people of the Canary Islands and destroyed its ecology.  It’s a very melancholy and tragic tale, one that is generally unknown, but it caught my attention years ago.  I always think of the Canary Islands, which are said to be very beautiful, with a wisp of sadness and think about the native people, now long gone, who fought for decades against the invaders, only to be destroyed so utterly and totally that, in the end, not one survived.

Let’s hope that the orangutans, one of our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, will be spared a similar fate in the wild.

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I am a person of solitudes.  The species that I work with, the Bornean orangutan, is solitary or semi-solitary.  In the past I have spent many, many days alone on the forest floor observing orangutans, trailing them as they wandered through the forest canopy, foraging for food.  More recently, it almost seems as if I spend most of  my time alone in airports, cramped in the back of planes and travelling trying to spread an educated awareness about orangutans and tropical rain forests throughout the world. (Hello Lithuania!)

So it was with some reluctance  that I agreed to the suggestion (actually more like insistence!) of my friend Chris that I start a blog.  Chris and Janet live in San Diego and to get me started, they invited me to their home for the Memorial Day week-end.  Janet’s sister, Linda, was also visiting from Saskatchewan, one of Canada’s prairie provinces.  (I remember Saskatchewan well as I spoke there last year: beautiful and stark, filled with warm people and a bitter cold wind that sweeps down unimpeded from the Arctic).

The drive from Los Angeles took four hours in solitude, except for the car radio.  In good traffic, it normally takes two and a half.  And if you have a radar-detection device on your car, you could probably do it in two.  When I got out of the car, it was as if I had been on a sea voyage, my legs were so wobbly I could barely walk.  This was not surprising as my legs had been pinned immobile beneath the steering wheel for four hours.

One of the reasons Chris, Janet, and Linda, and I became close friends is because we all care profoundly about animals.  In fact, I have rarely met people who are more committed to the welfare of animals than Chris, Janet, and Linda. 

Soon after arrival in San Diego, Chris put me in front of the computer and we did a practice blog (posted for May 23, 2009) using an excerpt from my book  Reflections of Eden.   Feeling uncomfortable with the concept, I wanted to see some other people’s blogs.  We turned to Wayne Pacelle’s blog as I knew that he would be blogging about animals.  In fact, he was blogging about working with convicted animal abuser Michael Vick who has just been released from prison.  He was convicted of running an illegal dog-fighting operation several years ago.  Vick is going to be working with HSUS (Humane Society of the US) to convince others that dog-fighting is unconscionable and should be stopped (It’s already been banned everywhere in North America).   This led to some discussion among us about Vick’s real motives, whether he has changed, or  if  it even matters.  The concensus was that it was a good idea because it would keep attention on the issue of dog-fighting and , who knows, in the end, Michael Vick himself would be converted to the path of righteousness in terms of his relations with animals, especially dogs.  After all, I certainly believe in the power of redemption and the fact that we can all grow spiritually as we live our lives.

Today was the big day!  My first actual post which I am writing now.  With Chris standing beside me, smiling, (probably a little amused at my apprehension of actually sitting down at the keyboard and probably wondering what I would spew forth on my maiden voyage on my blog) I began typing.  This is it.  Good luck Michael Vick and even better luck to you, Wayne Pacelle, the the CEO of HSUS and the man who had the foresight to realize that some good could come out of the most abyssmal ignorance and evil (not you MichaelVick – but the dog-fighting operation you ran).

Chris and I in front of the computer in San Diego

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Welcome to my blog where I will be bringing you updates from my life. But first, let me cite a paragraph from my own book Reflections of Eden.  I hope that my blog will present my feelings and some insightful reflections on the issues facing orangutans and forests as well as Borneo and its native people, the Dayaks.

“Our departure from Eden allows us reflection – reflection on our origin and our relations to other creatures, reflection on good and evil, and ultimately, reflection on the possibility that we are engineering our own extinction. Never having left Eden, our innocent pongid kin are not burdened with this knowledge and the responsibility it entails. Looking into the calm, unblinking eyes of an orangutan we see, as through a series of mirrors, not only the image of our own creation but also a reflection of our own souls and an Eden that once was ours. And on occasion, fleetingly, just for a nanosecond, but with an intensity that is shocking in its profoundness, we recognize that there is no separation between ourselves and nature. We are allowed to see the eyes of God.”  (excerpt from Refelctions of Eden)

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