For the Conservation Curious

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When Should Traditions that Use Animals and Their Parts End? July 16, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 2:55 PM

I read two stories late last week that got me thinking about this question: when should traditions like the use of bear, tiger, and rhino parts for “traditional” medicine end? When is technology good enough to show that other methods are more efficacious and much less inhumane? Or is peer pressure and a better understanding of the suffering of “lesser” mammals and other wildlife what will truly end such practices?

The first story I read about was from a National Geographic posted on July 12, 2018 about how bear bile farms in Asia are closing down – and then killing the bears or letting them starve to death – due to reduced demand, and therefore reduced prices for, farmed bear bile. Bear bile is used as a traditional Asian medicine for things like liver disease and cancer. However, synthetic drugs have taken the place of much of that, leaving bear bile “farmers” with a glut of product and dearth of customers.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Some of the farms are trying to get the bears to rescue centers, but with more than 1,000 captive bears in bile farms, the chances are that not all will be so lucky. Many will end up as bear paw soup or as trinkets for good luck or good health.

So I have this conflicting knot in my stomach about this. While I think it is wonderful that fewer people are using bear bile for “medicinal” purposes, and cross my fingers for the day when no bears (wild caught or otherwise) are kept in cages to have their bile extracted or their gallbladders harvested, the path from today to that future could be paved with hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bears. I hope that more organizations like “Free the Bears” step in to give a new home to these well-deserving bears!

The second story I read, on on July 13, discussed what appears to be the first intentional killing of a blue whale in 40 years. An Icelandic whaling vessel was caught in the act, and they say they did nothing wrong because the whale was a hybrid, not a true blue whale, which is endangered and illegal to kill. Whale experts who have seen photos of the whale say that it is indeed a blue whale.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of whether or not it is a blue whale that was killed, it makes me think of the larger question of “Should whales (and other cetaceans like dolphins) be killed for food by indigenous peoples? When I was in Iceland this past fall I was shocked and a bit turned off by the restaurant menus I saw that had whale on the menu (I didn’t eat at those places, by the way. Nor any place that served puffin!). While I understand that before world commerce was a big thing, people in Iceland had to eat whatever they could find / hunt / fish on and near the islands, which didn’t leave them with many choices.

But in today’s age, when there are many more choices, and so much more knowledge related to how intelligent cetaceans are, when does eating these animals become too old school? As tourism continues to build in Iceland, will that do it? As younger generations deem those traditions as outdated, will it end then? I wonder…

*This blog post is dedicated to Mark C. who gave me a gentle kick in the butt to start blogging again. Thanks, Mark!


Viewing Nature from a Mexican All-Inclusive Resort April 17, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 5:21 PM

About a week ago I returned from a 5 day, 4 night trip to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, traveling south of the popular tourist destination of Cancun to reside at an all-inclusive report a few miles north of Playa del Carmen. The official occasion was to celebrate my husband’s successful passing of his professional engineering (PE) exam, but an unofficial reason was to escape from the never-ending winter we’re having in the northeast/Mid Atlantic region.

I am not a huge beach or pool person, so I was hesitant to go on such a trip. I thought that the eat and drink all you want aspect would get boring after a couple days. And let’s face it, there has been a lot of negative press about Mexico recently, from a family dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in a VRBO, to the bomb on a ferry to Cozumel, to 15 people getting killed in drug cartel related violence in Cancun last week. But for the sake of my hubbie’s happiness, I tried to remain positive.

And I’m glad I did, because this was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had. Why, you ask?

  1. The birds
  2. The snorkeling
  3. The other wildlife
  4. And ok, the booze and food were pretty great too!

I am a bird nerd and I added 7 lifebirds to my list, as well as 2-3 other birds that I have only seen once or twice before, including dozens of magnificent frigatebirds. The lifebirds were the tropical kingbird, Yucatan woodpecker, hooded oriole, summer tanager, yellow-billed cacique, great kiskadee, and plain chachalaca. All but the last bird were seen on our resort. The final one was on our way back to the airport. Thanks goes to the handy laminated field guide I picked up the week before we left:

bird book

In terms of snorkeling, we were able to borrow gear from our resort, wade out into the ocean right there, and see some fish. Unfortunately it got windy by day two, so there was too much sand to see much. The wind canceled our first off-resort snorkeling trip, and I can’t say I would recommend Cancun Adventures to anyone in the future, but our second trip at Maroma Adventures, was great! I saw some sting rays, myriad fish like angelfish, blue dorys, damselfish, and some people saw a turtle, although I was not so lucky.

The snorkeling off the Yucatan Peninsula is supposed to be second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I don’t have that to compare to but it was a million times better than last year’s snorkeling off St. Kitts. And Mexico requires that you wear only “reef safe” sunscreen to help prevent the coral bleaching that is happening worldwide. I bought some off Amazon and it worked ok, but I can see why this type of sunscreen isn’t all that readily available. It leaves white streaks everywhere and needs to be reapplied a lot more frequently. But if I helped not kill innocent corals and fish then it’s worth it. I will say that the reef looked a little rough, but not completely bleached like some are. Just a word of caution that a lot of the so-called “reef safe” sunscreens out there are NOT actually reef safe. Read all the reviews, know which ingredients are bad, and buy accordingly.

Here are some photos of the fish we saw while snorkeling:






In addition to all the sea life we saw many iguanas and coatis on our resort.





I would recommend highly taking a trip to the Yucatan for the wildlife watching, eating local cuisine (what great, diverse fruit!), and general relaxation. Enjoy!



Job Loss vs. Health – Cigarettes and Coal April 3, 2017

The current president, Republican congressmen, and others bemoan the “death of coal” and the “war on coal”. They talk about how coal’s demise has resulted in job losses for many across Appalachia and beyond. No one can deny that when a coal mine closes, miners and others lose their jobs, and the surrounding communities’ economies suffer. Yet there is a link that I have not seen anyone discuss or write about, and I think it’s high time someone does… the similarities between health impacts from coal and cigarettes and how no one seemed to say the death of “Big Tobacco” was a job killer that should be re-thought.

The Tobacco Industry

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that smoking kills 480,000 people in the United States each year. That is one in every five deaths per day. As mounting evidence of this, as well as the addictive nature of nicotine and the tobacco industry’s cover-up came to light, there was strong pressure to stop the marketing of cigarettes and educate people on the benefits of quitting. More and more people began to quit smoking, which had a major impact on the tobacco industry’s profits.

The CDC says that the number of tobacco farms in the United States is down from a high of nearly 180,000 in the 1980s to less than 10,000 in 2012, although our country is still a leading producer (4th in the world). Think of how many tobacco farmers, cigarette manufacturing employers, distributers, and others who lost their jobs due to the acknowledgement of the health impacts of tobacco. Where was the outcry about those job losses? Perhaps at a southeastern U.S. scale, where most of it is grown, there was more discussion, but at a national level I don’t recall seeing anything of the magnitude we get about coal.

The Coal Industry

Physicians for Social Responsibility says that the burning of coal can cause asthma, lung disease, and lung cancer, and negatively impact lung development in children. For coal miners, black lung disease is a real and under-reported illness, according to an investigative report from NPR this past December. Hundreds of miners and former miners are dying each year in West Virginia alone, according to the report. Hundreds more in other coal mining states are dying as well.

Why the Silence?

Why is no one making a connection between coal mining and its negative impacts to people’s health with the impacts smoking has on health when trying to counter the “job killing” rhetoric of the current administration? Yes, when a coal mine is shut down people lose their jobs. But the same thing happened when cigarette plants and tobacco farms were shut down as people wised-up about smoking’s negative impacts. The people that worked in the tobacco industry had to adapt and find a new job. Those in the coal industry must do the same. And we as a country must help them take this next chapter in their life.

What the Future Holds

I hope that this blog will inspire others with more far-reaching audiences and greater impact to spread the message that the negative health impacts of mining and burning coal far-outweigh any benefits of keeping that industry going, just as the closing of cigarette manufacturing plants and tobacco farms did in the 1990s and beyond. We need to help miners, coal-burning plant technicians, and others transition to safer jobs that will lead the United States back on a path to innovation and prosperity. Whether that’s through alternative energy sources such as solar and wind or some new, untapped technology, it is high-time for us to move forward together. Let’s let coal go the way of cigarettes and snub it out.


Caribbean Conservation March 20, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:23 PM
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I arrived home from a week in St. Kitts to see over a foot of snow on the ground. That was quite a rude awakening. It made me long for the warm, breezy days on the beach, watching the palm trees gently sway. St. Kitts is a beautiful place and a welcome respite from the winter blahs, but there were a few things that made me pause.

Monkey Business

St. Kitts is home to vervet monkeys (also known as African green monkeys), which ended up there via colonists from France and/or England sometime in the 17th century. I saw many of these monkeys roaming free along the beach and in the mountains. I also saw them in cages along the roadside, where signs said to pay a donation for taking a photo. There were also men walking the public beaches with baby monkeys in diapers. They charged tourists for a photo op with the monkey on their head.


One of our cab drivers (you need to rely on these guys to get just about anywhere on the island) told us that the baby monkeys are stolen from their mothers (who are tranquilized) when they are very young so that they then “attach” themselves to their human captors. Most people are unaware of this, so I want to share that anyone who pays for a photo with these monkeys is helping to fuel a cruel practice. Give your kids a better gift than that. The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida also says that these monkeys are rounded up and shipped to the U.S. for animal testing. They offer humane solutions for keeping the monkey population in check. Visit their website for more info.

Dwindling Corals?

One day we spent an hour snorkeling near shipwreck bay, toward the southern portion of the island on the Caribbean side. I’ve only snorkeled one other time in my life – near San Juan, Puerto Rico, so I can’t vouch for home bad or good the snorkeling was there. I loved it anyway, as I saw myriad species of fish, a few different types of sea urchin, and a few lonely coral. It was the lack of corals that I found unusual. I wondered why that was. Walking along the beach later on, I noticed a lot of dead coral pieces, including whole brain corals and large pieces of staghorn corals. It was a bit disheartening. St. Kitts is not alone in experiencing coral bleaching and death. The Ocean Agency tracks global coral bleaching events. Their website does not paint a pretty picture. The bleaching is due to several factors, among them ocean acidification from climate change. Now may be the time to visit extensive corals like the Great Barrier Reef, as they may lose their splendor in the future.


Staying Optimistic

I am a pessimist by trade but I’m trying to keep an open mind to the fate of islands like St. Kitts. They have some national parks, eco centers, and eco-tourism that are helping to preserve beautiful places like their rain forests, rocky shores, and beaches, as well as protect the many bird and reptile species from introduced predators like the mongoose. I added six new bird species to my life bird list (out of 10 total species), and probably would have had a few more if I was better at identifying bird calls. St. Kitts’ landscape was dominated by sugar cane as recently as the early 2000s. It is slowly growing back into a more natural state. If people continue to care about the land and all the creatures and plants that inhabit it, hopefully it will continue to thrive and impress tourists and natives alike.


All photo by Jessica Sprajcar Aiello, 2017.



Keeping PA Green and Beautiful February 7, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:41 PM

There is an effort afoot to revive Growing Greener in Pennsylvania. What is Growing Greener 3.0 and why is it important to all citizens of our great commonwealth? This blog post will fill you in on some of the basic details. To learn more, visit

What is Growing Greener III?

Growing Greener (GG) is a funding mechanism of the state legislature that has three goals:

  • conserve land and water resources
  • restore damaged waterways and land
  • create prosperous and sustainable communities

GG I and II did this from tipping fees on landfills and a voter-approved bond. But the funds from GG I have been diverted to pay the debt service on the GG II bonds, so little remains to pay for conservation and restoration work across the commonwealth. A new mechanism is needed – that’s where GG III comes in.

What will Growing Greener III Do Specifically?

GG III could accomplish so much for the health of our communities and the economy.

  • Nearly 26,000 miles of our streams and rivers are polluted and considered “impaired” – GG III could help restore these to swimmable, fishable quality.

  • There is a backlog of 1,500 farms that could be preserved through easements. The cost of these is estimated at $458 million. By preserving these farms we can encourage the next generation of farmers to stay on the land and provide agricultural resources to the rest of us.

  • There are more acres of abandoned mine lands in PA than any other state. The cost to clean up all these sites is estimated at as much as $15 billion – yes, with a B!

  • There’s quick a backlog of maintenance projects at parks across the state. GG III could help bring these parks back to life and create programs to encourage more young people to get outside.

That is just a small sampling of the need that exists and how GG III could help take care of these problems.

What Can You Do?

Growing Greener III is not a done deal. Our legislators need to hear from their constituents that you care about clean water, opportunities to recreate, and prosperous communities. This is especially important due to the tight state budget right now. Don’t let our environment suffer from legislative squabbling. Send them an email or give them a call and let them know you would like them to support Growing Greener II.

To find the contact information for your representative and senator, visit


The Power of Protests January 19, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 12:14 PM
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This week, the Ringling Brother Circus announced that after 100 years, they are closing their tent flaps for good, come this May. I had a few mixed emotions about that announcement that I would like to share here, especially in light of the upcoming Women’s March on Washington that I will be participating in this Saturday…

The Impact of a Circus

Like many American children, I attended the Ringling circus at least once, probably a couple times, in my life. I am pretty sure I even rode on the back of one of the endangered Asian elephants… a treat for any young kid. While clowns scared me, the animals enthralled me. Aside from the zoo, the circus was the only other place for me to see these amazing creatures up close. It had a lasting effect on me.

But as I got older I came to realize that these wild creatures shouldn’t be put on spectacle for our entertainment. The cramped cages, the stress of moving from town to town, the impact of performing multiple nights a week, the alleged abuses; they all added up to make me dislike the circus.

My First Protest

In college I started an animal rights group at my school. We spent most of our time trying to get more vegetarian options in the cafeteria and educate people about animal testing. It was a rather tame bunch. In grad school I joined the group there (the only grad student in the group, I might add) and was a member of PETA (something I would not continue for long due to their extreme views). Through that group I protested the Ringling Brothers Circus when it came to town.

I was anxious and had no idea what to expect. Would we experience hostility? Would there be violence? I was surprised by what we did experience… the circus performers who I met were cordial and took the time to listen to our concerns. The parents mostly tried to ignore us. Ignorance is bliss, right?! After all, my parents took me to the circus when I was young. It’s almost like a right of passage.

Bittersweet Goodbye

And that is why the announcement of the circus’ closing left me with mixed emotions. I am so very happy that no more elephants, lions, tigers, and other animals will have to live such an unnatural life performing for our amusement. They deserve much better. But I do feel bad for the performers who loved their jobs. I’m sure 99% of them respected their animal co-stars and treated them kindly. And after this March, kids won’t get to experience the magic of Ringling. Thankfully Cirque du Soleil is still around to fill in some of the gaps.

Protests Work

So as I get ready to go to the Women’s March – which I do want to stress is a march, not exactly a protest – I think back to my first protest and how it has left an indelible mark on me. And it’s amazing that it worked… although it took nearly 30 years and much effort to do so. The people taking part in Saturday’s march have many reasons for doing so. Mine are for women’s reproductive rights, environmental protection, and equal pay for equal work, among others. It will be a slow process making progress, but good things mature with time.


Goods News / Bad News for Species December 23, 2016

Although it’s the holiday season and I should write about cute puppy dogs with bows and ribbons, there were two stories I saw in the last week that I am compelled to write about. One is rather dreary, the other gives me a bit of hope. Since you’re supposed to tell someone two nice things before you break the bad news, I’ll start with the positive story…

Many news outlets discussed the discovery of many new species in the Greater Mekong Area of China. These included a frog that sings like a bird, a blind fish, a walking catfish, and 123 others. So to me, the fact that in 2016 we are still discovering new species is amazing, especially those on land. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of new species in the deep sea… but those will be much more difficult to find and catalogue. There are most likely myriad insect species that we don’t know about too, but again, their small size makes them more elusive. The world is still ripe for discovery.

And yet, Nick Cox, manager of the World Wildlife Fund’s Greater Mekong Species Program said, “The good news is new discoveries. The bad news is that it is getting harder and harder in the world of conservation and environmental sustainability.” Just as these species are discovered, they are under threat. That is downer statement number one.

Number two is that scientists are warning that the species extinction crisis is far worse than previously thought. CNN has a great interactive story (videos, charts, etc.) about it here. They discuss the five causes that are speeding up the process: climate change, agriculture, wildlife crime (i.e. poaching), pollution, and disease. That’s a lot to keep you up at night if you care about animals.

However, they offer solutions to help us slow the crisis. And I’d like to offer a thought or two as well.

  • People have the capacity to do great harm to the planet, but we have as equally great a capacity to help and heal the earth.
  • By recognizing the problems, we can develop solutions for them.
  • Iconic species like the rhino and elephant, and even the giraffe, which scientists say are in a downward population spiral, grab people’s attention and pull on their heart strings. By protecting them, we protect other less charismatic species too.
  • No matter how gloomy the news has been this year, and it has indeed been downright apocalyptic at times, we have to keep faith that things change… sometimes at a glacial pace… but they do change. I’ll hope for the best.

(Photo collage from The Telescope)