One of the World’s Largest and Oldest Sustainability Projects

After the difficult winter of 2015, many of us have our hearts and minds transfixed on outdoor gardening activities. In my gardening research, I came across a huge success story in the world of sustainable living. I hope this information will inspire you, as it has me, to begin using a fertilizer brand for your lawn, vegetable and flower gardens that comes from the oldest recycler in the United States.

Over more than 85 years, the City of Milwaukee has undertaken one of the world’s oldest and largest recycling projects. In 1913, the City of Milwaukee created a sewerage commission to clean up the city’s waterways. By 1919, The Milwaukee Sewerage Commission’s laboratory formally adopted a new process for responsible recycling of biosludge. By 1921, all municipal sewers were connected to this system and processed in a central location at Jones Island, on the shore of Lake Michigan. In 1923 construction began on the first large-scale activated sludge plant in the world.  In 1925, the Sewerage Commission concluded that the disposal problem they faced could be solved by producing and marketing fertilizer. In 1974, the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant was named a National Historic Engineering Site by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Specifically, this new sewerage treatment process was the production of solids – the microbes left over from the treatment process and there was one problem. There were 50,000 – 70,000 tons of dried microbes left after the process and no one thought it responsible or even prudent to dispose this volume of waste and potential valuable resource in the landfill.  So the Sewerage Commission joined forces with the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture, where Professor Emil Truog and O.J. (Oyvind Juul) Noer began investigating uses of activated sludge as a fertilizer.

Noer determined that the average nutrient analysis of the material was 6.2 percent total nitrogen, with 5.17 percent being water insoluble nitrogen (83% WIN); 2.63 percent available phosphate (P205) and 0.4 percent soluble potash (K20). In his literature review, Noer found that the available nitrogen generally resembled so-called high-grade organic nitrogenous fertilizers and gave superior growth results compared to manures and chemical fertilizers of the time.

Noer experimented with field crops and vegetables and on golf courses, the use of this organic nitrogen fertilizer and found it superior and one-third the cost of other fertilizers commonly used at the time. Also, there was no danger of burning the turf even with over-application and it produced a dark green dense turf without causing excessive top growth. Noer knew he had a commercially viable product when word traveled throughout several golf clubs.


Courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Following are examples of how Milorganite has adopted to market changes over the years. In 1926, most of the Milorganite was sold in bulk, but by the mid-1930s it was also packaged in 25, 50 and 100 lb. bags. In 1955, packaging changed to offer 40 and 80 lb. bags and again in the 1970s as 20 kg bags were introduced with the movement to metric in the U.S. Today, Milorganite is sold in a distinctive 36 lb. bag and a 5 lb. bag exclusively for the retail market, 50 lb. bags for the professional market, and reusable bulk bags for large area applications.  The blending market continues to be important as other companies find the nutrient analysis to be a valuable addition to their products.

Milorganite continues to help fund many important research projects at universities across the country including projects that study nutrient leaching and run-off, the effects of different fertility regimes and sources on irrigation requirements, and the effect of Milorganite phosphorus in the environment.

Milorganite summarizes its success as follows:

  • Since 1926: 9.5 billion lbs of waste diverted from landfill to re-use
  • $308 million dollars generated, providing tax relief for residents of Milwaukee
  • 8 million tons of Milorganite sold
  • Milorganite is regulated by the EPA and complies with the most stringent requirements
  • Milorganite uses alternative energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, and digester methane.
  • The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is leading the nation in “Green” solutions.

For more information and to determine where to purchase, you can visit Milorganite’s web site. You can watch this video to learn more about the product as well.

Sentient Sandra and a Landmark Ruling on Animal Rights

This nearly mature male orang utan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at © Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

This nearly mature male orangutan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at–3
© Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

Last month, amid the holiday hustle and bustle and with little fanfare, a landmark legal ruling in the world history of animal rights occurred in Argentina. The ruling concerned an orangutan named Sandra, a resident of the Buenos Aires zoo for the last twenty years. The court ruled that Sandra was considered a “nonhuman being” and she was granted basic rights, such as life, freedom and a premise of “no harm” either physically or psychologically. Argentina’s Federal Chamber of Criminal Cassation ruled the primate is a subject of law, “a nonhuman being that has certain rights, and can enforce them through legal procedure,” according to Andrés Gil Domínguez, Sandra’s attorney. Previously in Argentina, as in the rest of the world, the law interpreted animals as things.

Lawyers for Argentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada) had argued that Sandra was “a person” in the philosophical, not biological, sense. They argued further that she was in a situation of illegal deprivation of freedom as a “non-human person” and had filed a “habeas corpus” writ in her favor last November over “the unjustified confinement of an animal with probable cognitive capability.” The court judges had rejected the writ several times before deciding finally that Sandra could be considered to have rights to freedom which needed defending.

Sandra was born in 1986 in a German zoo and was transferred to the Buenos Aires zoo in September 1994. She was considered to be shy and regularly tried to avoid the public in her enclosure.

The Buenos Aires zoo has 10 working days to seek an appeal, after which time there are plans to transfer Sandra to a sanctuary to live out the rest of her years. Captive orangutans have been known to live as long as 60 years, while the average lifespan of a wild orangutan is 35-45 years.

Afada lawyer Paul Buompadre was quoted as saying by La Nacion newspaper: “This opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories.”

Similar cases are occurring more frequently. A U.S. court this month rejected a similar case regarding a privately owned chimpanzee in New York. The court ruled that “Tommy’ was not a “person” entitled to the rights and protections afforded by habeas corpus.

In 2011, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit against Sea World, alleging five wild-captured orca whales were treated like slaves. A San Diego court dismissed the case.

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo. Photo from the Creative Commons.

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo. Photo from the Creative Commons.

As one with experience working in zoos and aquariums, I am heartened by the progression of mankind towards consideration of the sentience of animals, albeit slow progress. There would be no captive animals in a perfect world, but the world is far from perfect. Man kept captive animals as long ago as the Neolithic era, possibly earlier. In the U.S. alone, 175 million people visit AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums annually. Therefore, there is still much to achieve towards establishment of animal rights and a movement away from animals in captivity. A shy, unassuming orangutan named Sandra has quite possibly set us upon a new path. She will be known by name among the masses and for decades to come. Her name will be in all the relevant college texts and legal briefs.

I am already her biggest fan.


National Bison Day


November 1 is National Bison Day. You can get in on the celebration through the Beards for Bison campaign by visiting which is organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

While I adore all ungulates, next to pronghorn there is no North American ungulate that holds my fascination more than bison (Bison bison). They are an American icon and the largest land mammal in North America. During the months of January through May of 2009, I had the good fortune of interning at the North Carolina Zoological Park in the Northwoods Prairie section. The section includes red wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, elk and bison. The opportunity to work with such a combination of snorting beasts and large carnivorous mammals was indeed a thrill.

There are two recognized subspecies in North America: Plains bison (Bison bison bison) and wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). The historical range of plains bison extended from Northern Mexico to central Alberta. Wood bison range extended from central Alberta to Alaska.

North American bison graze and forage primarily in grasslands and meadows. Their historic range was the widest natural range of any North American herbivore, from the arid grasslands of Chihuahua State in northern Mexico, through the grasslands of the Great Plains, to the riparian meadows of interior Alaska. They can thrive in dry regions or deep snow, eating primarily grasses and sedges when resources are thin. Bison excavate snow by sweeping it away using side to side motions of their muzzle. In the summer and fall, they have a more varied diet that includes flowering plants, woody plant leaves, and lichens.


In the 19th Century, we nearly lost bison throughout its entire North American range due to recreational hunting, market and subsistence. It is difficult for me to think of bison and not simultaneously replay in my head the scene from Dances with Wolves when the nomadic Lakota Sioux and John Dunbar, on a hunt for bison, come across a seemingly unending sea of dead bison, killed only for their hides and otherwise left to decompose. The numbers of bison destroyed and left to rot were in numbers far greater than wildlife could consume and certainly not fit for human consumption.

Fortunately, conservationists stepped in and took action before all was lost. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt and William Hornaday founded the American Bison Society (ABS) at the Bronx Zoo to save the bison from extinction. In 1907, Bronx Zoo staff sent 15 bison by train to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Preserve to help restore the western Plains’ depleted bison population. In 2005, Wildlife Conservation Society re-launched the American Bison Society, which built a network of bison experts, including ranchers, state, and provincial governments, Native American nations, scientists, and non-governmental organizations from western states, Mexico, and Canada, with the purpose of securing an ecological future of bison in North America over the next century.

But pressure on wild bison populations persists and they need all the public support that can be mustered. Bison are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as Near Threatened in light of its dependence on an ongoing conservation program and the fact that there are only five viable wild populations. There are approximately 19,000 total plains bison in 54 conservation herds (herds managed in the public interest by governments and environmental organizations), and 11,000 total wood bison in 11 conservation herds. Over 90 percent of bison today are under private ownership, raised like cows for bison meat. In fact at the turn of last century, ranchers often interbred bison with cattle to improve their cattle herds. Therefore, cattle genes are now present in many bison populations, and few genetically pure bison herds remain. Current policies and a tradition of fencing ranches discourage free-ranging bison herds in the West.

While bison have been “saved”, there is still much work to do. So sport your beard, real or otherwise, on November 1 and post your photo with #BeardsforBison on social media. Also, go to and cast your vote for bison to be designated as America’s national mammal.


Shovels and Shade Provide Healing at the Footprints of Terror

Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc. all rights reserved.

9/11 Memorial Plaza shaded by swamp white oak trees. Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc. all rights reserved.

By Maymie Higgins

Recently, I visited New York and New Jersey in order to attend a family reunion. My last visit to Manhattan specifically had been in 1988, when the World Trade Center buildings still cast their tall and defiant forms across the skyline. This recent visit included plans to pay my respects at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

During my college years, I visited with my paternal uncle in New York many times, and I would accompany him on his commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Financial District where he had a seat at the New York Stock Exchange. Uncle Bill had parking privileges at City Pier A on the Hudson River at Battery Park. From 1960 to 1992, the pier was used by the New York City Fire Department as a fireboat station. Uncle Bill was awarded the parking privileges for his role during a city blackout in coordinating and providing alternative communication through Amateur Ham Radio. It was quite the treat to spend the day exploring the city with my aunt and then simply meet Uncle Bill back at the car at the end of the work day.

On one of my visits, Aunt Beth and I rode the high speed elevator in the World Trade Center South tower and toured the roof observation deck. For many reasons, September 11, 2001 was not just an attack on “those tall buildings in New York and the Pentagon.” It was personal. Even though Uncle Bill had retired by that time, he still lived in the region and it was possible for him to have been in Manhattan. Much of my family still resides in the region and I am grateful none of them perished on 9/11. However, many of them lost friends and still feel an acute sense of trauma and grief.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

On this recent trip, I was eager to see if I still had my skills to navigate the big city. I drove my husband and myself from New Jersey to the Staten Island Ferry, successfully parked and hitched the free ferry ride across New York Harbor. We disembarked and made a beeline up Greenwich Street. No sauntering like a tourist for this gal, at least not until a surprising sight caught the corner of my eye. To my left was a huge garden in a place I had remembered as being mostly paved pathways and park benches. Now it was an eruption of green foliage full of activity as people hoed, raked, dug and harvested vegetables….in Lower Manhattan! Though my schedule did not allow me to linger very long, I made a mental note to research Battery Urban Farm, which had sprouted in the footprints of tragedy. Here is a video explaining the story:

We made our way to the 9/11 Memorial plaza, where massive pools with fountains flow in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. Each fountain is surrounded by parapets that have inscribed in bronze the nearly 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The contrast in stimulation of the senses within the plaza and that in the periphery of the plaza was palpable. In the periphery there were the sounds of jackhammers, cranes, sirens, car horns, and vehicle back up beepers. All this was suppressed and muted within the plaza, done so by the sound of massive waterfalls and rustling of leaves in the more than 250 swamp white oak trees. In fact, I felt cradled and shielded by their canopy. For more about the story of the trees chosen for the Memorial plaza, watch this video:

The Memorial plaza is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever constructed, with irrigation, storm water and pest management systems that conserve energy, water and other resources. Rainwater is collected in storage tanks, meeting a majority of the daily and monthly irrigation requirements.

E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, which literally means “love of life.” Humans often seek to nurture life in various ways in an effort to soothe their grief, but it was surprising to see so much plant life in a concrete jungle. However, surprise was not my most overwhelming reaction. What concerned me that my heart might burst from my chest was an enormous sense of pride in the human race. Most humans innately know that, although individual lives may end, life itself goes on. Those who are still alive will see to it. No terrorist will ever destroy that rule of the universe.

Elephant and Rhino Conservation: Three Encouraging Events in One Year

Forest elephants.  Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Forest elephants. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In September, 2013, conservation groups announced a three-year $80 million Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to bring together NGOs, governments, and concerned citizens to stop the slaughter of Africa’s elephants. Funding has been provided by the governments of the United States, Europe, and Africa and multiple other organizations, institutions, foundations, and individuals.

Nations joining the coalition include Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi, and Uganda. Commitment partners include African Parks Network, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Freeland Foundation, Howard Buffett Foundation, International Conservation Caucus Foundation, National Geographic, Save the Elephants, TRAFFIC, WildAid and WildLifeDirect. Commitment Makers include Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Conservation International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wildlife Fund.

Funds are being used to support national governments to scale up anti-poaching enforcement at the 50 priority elephant sites including hiring and supporting an additional 3,100 park guards. Anti-trafficking efforts are being increased by strengthening intelligence networks and increasing penalties for violations and adding training and sniffer dog teams. In addition, leaders from African nations have called for other countries to adopt trade moratoria on all commercial ivory imports, exports and domestic sales of ivory products until African elephant populations are no longer threatened by poaching.

The commitment runs through 2016 and addresses the problem on three fronts: stop the killing; stop the trafficking; and stop the demand.

So much of the burden of this commitment falls on the shoulders of wildlife rangers.  It just so happens that World Ranger Day is this week. World Ranger Day is observed annually on the 31st of July, and is promoted by the 54 member associations of the International Ranger Federation, by their partner the Thin Green Line Foundation, and by individuals who support the work of Rangers and the IRFs natural and cultural treasures.

More than 1,000 rangers have been killed worldwide over the past 10 years, with many more injured in the line of duty.  Rangers in Uganda, DRC and Rwanda have been directly responsible for an increase in the number of Mountain Gorillas, risking their lives to ensure the survival of this Critically Endangered species.  In Virunga National Park alone, 140 rangers have been killed in the last 15 years.  In Thailand, there are 20,490 rangers working in 411 protected areas. In the last five years, more than 40 park rangers have been murdered, with many more injured or left in a critical condition. Community Maasai Rangers in Kenya have helped increase the local lion population on their community lands from just 6 individuals to over 70.  So it is easy to see why the Partnership to Save Elephants and other similar initiatives are so important.

You can watch Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton announce the commitment Partnership to Save the Elephants at the 2013 CGI Annual Meeting in the following video. They were joined on stage by participating heads of state and leaders of groups partnering on the effort.

The second event relates to a topic I blogged about last week, the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) annual Bowling for Rhinos event. Each year the AAZK sponsors a fund raising bowl-a-thon in which more than 60 AAZK chapters participate throughout the U.S. and Canada and typically raise between $200,000- $300,000 annually. However in 2013, $481,489 dollars were raised and a goal has been set to raise $500,000 in 2014!

Since 1990, the annual AAZK Bowling for Rhinos fundraiser has raised a total of $4,994,153. One-hundred percent of all funds raised goes directly to in situ conservation projects, conserving four species of rhino, their habitats, and hundreds of other endangered plants and animals. BFR helps preserve the black and white rhino in Africa and the Javan and Sumatran rhino in Indonesia.

Image courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers

Image courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers

The third event happened just last week. A South African court sentenced a rhino poacher to 77 years in jail, the heaviest penalty ever imposed. Mandla Chauke was convicted of shooting three rhinos, as well as murder and possession of illegal firearms, after he and two other poachers cut through wire fencing and illegally entered Kruger National Park in 2011. The murder charge was added because one of Chauke’s accomplices was killed in a shootout with park rangers. The third poacher escaped. “Our wish is to see a significant increase in such convictions,” South African National Parks chief executive Abe Sibiya said.

Stiff sentencing is needed to stamp out the medicinal demand for rhino horn, which is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and actually has no medicinal qualities. It is made entirely of keratin. The consumption of rhino horn is no different than the consumption of human toenails, in both futility and repulsiveness.

Unfortunately, poaching and poaching wars go on. In fact, I worry that there will be a surge in poaching activity in rebellion to a changing world as a painful but telling affirmation that new attitudes, bigger penalties and more effective protection of wildlife is actually having an effect. Old beliefs die hard and opportunities to earn a living are very challenging in many parts of the world where poaching bears the greatest threats to native wildlife. With so many partners in the fight to save wildlife and wild places, one can only remain hopeful that solutions will continue to be created that consider the balance of both man and beast. Call me a naïve optimist, but I believe the human spirit is capable of accomplishing anything.

You can be part of the fight by taking the pledge to help extinguish the demand for ivory.

The Wonderful Wonderbag

The Wonderbag comes vacuumed packed, with complete instructions for use and some recipes using Knorr products.  Photo by Maymie Higgins

The Wonderbag comes vacuumed packed, with complete instructions for use and some recipes using Knorr products. Photo by Maymie Higgins

What can you buy for $50?  A tank of gas?  If you are a co-ed or single, groceries for a week perhaps?  Pay your monthly cell phone bill?  What if I told you $50 could buy you a slow cooker, known as The Wonderbag, that does not require electricity and, for your purchase, a Wonderbag would also be provided to a woman in Africa?

Why is that a big deal?

Consider these facts:

  • Women in developing countries spend 4-6 hours cooking each day.
  • The Wonderbag saves energy, water and time, all very important in developing countries where there is little access to either.  Also, staple diets require long cooking times.
  • Lack of clean fuel means using charcoal or tree-wood for cooking.  In parts of Africa, there can be little income to afford charcoal, so someone must cut down trees for all the wood necessary for long cooking times.
  • Cutting down trees results in deforestation as communities quickly use the tree wood around them, digging up the roots when desperate.  When local resources become limited, foraging for wood occurs further away from home.  Girls are taken out of school for this chore.
  • Females are at greater risk of violence, including rape, the further they are from home.
  • Poverty will not end if girls don’t have time for school.

The Wonderbag was developed in 2008 by Sarah Collins to ease the social, economic and environmental impacts of these circumstances. The Wonderbag is a non-electric, heat-retention cooker that allows food that has been brought to a boil on a stove/fire, to continue cooking for hours after it has been removed from the fuel source.

My Wonderbag as it is being "fluffed out", which is the process of letting air back into the foam pieces inside the lining and topper.  Photo by Maymie Higgins

My Wonderbag as it is being “fluffed out”, which is the process of letting air back into the foam pieces inside the lining and topper. Photo by Maymie Higgins

One simple item provides positive environmental and social impacts including water conservation, reduction in carbon footprints, reduction in deforestation, reduction in smoke inhalation diseases and deaths, reduction and prevention of violence and rape, and increased opportunities for further education for girls.

When I read this story, which I stumbled upon on the home page for, there was no hesitation on my part.  I immediately ordered two Wonderbags, one for myself and one for my mother-in-law.  It will be a particularly handy item on camping trips during those times when it is chilly enough in the morning to cook breakfast over a fire but you wouldn’t want a fire later in the day.  I will make a one pot supper while also cooking breakfast, slip the pot into the Wonderbag, and have a tasty meal ready for munching after a day of full of fun but exhausting adventures.

This weekend, my Wonderbag will get its inaugural run with a tasty recipe for Brunswick stew.  Perhaps there will also be equally tasty meals cooking in Wonderbags I provided for two women in Africa.  Better yet, perhaps there will be a few young ladies using the time no longer spent gathering wood towards their studies.

For more information, please watch this brief video.


Celebrating Forty Years of The Endangered Species Act

Black-footed ferrets. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Black-footed ferrets.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.  Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973.  On December 28th of that year, President Richard Nixon signed it into law.

The purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.  The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has primary responsibility for terrestrial and freshwater plants and animals, and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is responsible for marine wildlife.

Loggerhead sea turtle. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Loggerhead sea turtle.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the ESA, species are listed as endangered or threatened.  “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.  “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened.

Included under the ESA is any part, product, egg or offspring thereof, or the dead body or parts thereof for any plant or animal listed under the ESA, which includes both native U.S. and foreign species.  Any use or exhibition, such as in zoos and aquariums, of species listed under the ESA requires a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Karner blue butterfly. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Karner blue butterfly.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Endangered Species Act enabled FWS, NMFS and a wealth of non-governmental organizations, including zoos and aquariums, to save several well known species from the brink of extinction during the past four decades.  The most well known species that were protected under the ESA include the California condor, the Black-footed ferret, the Bald eagle, the American alligator, Red wolves, Peregrine falcons, Whooping cranes and Gray wolves.  These are incredible success stories but the work does not end at merely saving a species from extinction.  The protection often must continue in order to protect the species from the original threats.  Fortunately, there are many wildlife champions who continue the work.

Bald eagle. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bald eagle.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another Perspective on Sea World, Orcas and Captive Animals

Rehab dolphin tank at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rehab dolphin tank at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

By Maymie Higgins

The movie Blackfish is set to be released on DVD on Tuesday, November 12.  As much debate as the CNN airings and film festival screenings have prompted, the DVD release will likely create a resurgence of debate, anger, accusations and activism as yet unseen as it pertains to the topic of orcas in captivity, particularly at the Sea World parks.  I have not yet watched the documentary, preferring to wait until I could control the pace of viewing on my home DVD player, allowing for periods of bawling, meditation and sips of chamomile tea.  As an animal advocate and a person whose entire existence revolves around engaging the masses on a plethora of conservation topics, I probably do not have the emotional fortitude the movie requires.  And yet, I already know I will remain a supporter of Sea World even after seeing what I expect will be horrifying, gut-wrenching and panic-inducing images.

Rescued sea turtle at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued sea turtle at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

The issue of animals in captivity is a sophisticated issue and cannot be easily compartmentalized into easy solutions such as “No Orcas in Captivity!”  Even if there is a movement towards having no orcas in captivity, it will be a long time before the last captive orca has lived out its full life expectancy.  The concept that captive animals, particularly those born in captivity, should be “set free” is an incomplete, poorly thought out concept.  Animals must have hunting, foraging, mating and many other behavioral skills in order to survive in the wild.  Most captive born animals never learned all of those skills.  Many wild born, now captive animals are in zoos and aquariums because they cannot survive in the wild after recovering from injuries.  Did you know that modern zoos and aquariums are often sanctuary for injured animals that would have otherwise been euthanized?

Rescued manatees at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued manatees at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Sea World has saved far more animals than it has destroyed as they are on the ground, every day, rescuing and rehabilitating dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and dozens of species of birds, to name only a few.  I have personally viewed the rehabilitation facilities in Orlando, Florida.  From my perspective as a Registered Nurse and with some experience in small mammal and passerine wildlife rehabilitation, I was very impressed with the state of the art facilities and loving care provided.  In 2012, more than 24 million guests visited Sea World parks, generating millions of dollars of donations, 100 percent of which are used for the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for wildlife conservation efforts. Then there are the intangible contributions such as all the conservation education activities that Sea World provides both inside and outside their parks, fostering the steward in both young and old.  For orcas in particular, Sea World has conducted a significant amount of published research that has benefitted both captive and wild orcas.  And just to be clear, Sea World has no involvement in capturing wild orcas now.  As is true for many zoos and aquariums, most of their animals were born in captivity.

Rescued skate at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued skate at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

 The response to Blackfish should not be to shun Sea World.  Rather, keep visiting Sea World, make donations to their conservation fund, and support your local zoo and aquarium in their conservation efforts.  Consider this: if zoos and aquariums lose visitors, they lose revenue necessary to provide the best animal care possible.  The zoo and aquarium industry (and yes, it is an industry) is here to stay but that is not necessarily bad news.  For many species, it has already been good news.  For example, the black-footed ferret, red wolf and California condor would all be extinct now were it not for U.S. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.  Therefore, do not punish Sea World for their past sins.  Instead, praise them for their ongoing efforts to improve the way they care for captive animals and their safety measures to protect employees entrusted with animal care.  In all areas of life, it is far more productive to reward good behavior than to punish bad behavior.

Home on the Range, Where Antelope Still Play

By Maymie Higgins

The cheetah’s shoulders arched upward like a ready arrow in a fully drawn bow. With head low and eyes forward, he hoped the thick morning fog over the savanna would work in his favor. His last meal was a mere rodent and days ago. He studied the grazing herd, waiting for an individual to linger as the rest of the herd moved away. He and his brother’s coordination with one another would be crucial. Today, it was this cheetah’s turn to subdue the prey as his brother isolated it from the herd. Suddenly, his brother bolted and startled an isolated doe and her fawn. The fawn darted into the herd, reflexively lifting its tail, revealing a flash of white fur and releasing a scent that signaled the herd to flee swiftly and en masse. The doe darted too, keeping pace with the herd, albeit 50 yards behind as the cheetahs flanked her, accelerating to 60 mph to remain parallel. They drew in closer and the attacking cheetah leapt, his claws grazing the doe’s haunches, but failing to apply full weight and subdue her. Neither cheetah could again accelerate to the speed at which the doe ran. These hungry cheetahs were not African Cheetahs (Acinonyx) on the Serengeti but rather the now extinct American Cheetah (Miracinonyx) in the Pleistocene Great Basin. Their extinction may be due to losing participation in an evolutionary arms race for speed. The winner? The pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), who, in modern times, is the only extant member of the family Antilidocapridae; a family that originally had 12-13 members.

The pronghorn story is a success story, with caveats. Fossil records for pronghorn go back to the Miocene. In the 1800s, there were 35 million pronghorn in North America. By 1924, they were near extinction with only an estimated 20,000 remaining due to expansion of the nation and its effects from events such as overhunting and erection of fencing (pronghorn actually don’t jump very well) for domestic livestock that interrupted migration patterns. Human development and drought continue to pose threats in their current range. Pronghorn occupy tall and short grass prairies and deserts.

Pronghorn Range Map (Redrawn from Burt and Grossenheider, 1976) obtained at

Pronghorn Range Map (Redrawn from Burt and Grossenheider, 1976) obtained at

Pronghorn are of ecological importance because they eat noxious weeds and invasive plants which help to protect the cattle, bison, sheep and horses with which they share range. They also fill a niche in the ecosystem between deer and sheep and promote growth of native vegetation by grazing on plants such as Adam’s tree (Fouquieria diguetti), brittlebush (Encelia spp.), elephant tree (Pachycormus discolor), spurge (Euphorbia leucophylla), cliff spurge (E. misera), desert hollyhock (Sphaeralcea ambigua), thorn bush (Lycium spp.), saltbush (Atriplex spp.), Aristida aristidoides, and Phaseolusfiliformis.

Besides the importance of pronghorn to the ecosystem, their mere existence is thrilling. It is exciting that there remains an ungulate in North America that is not only one of a kind, but who also has physical adaptations to outrun predators that have not existed for thousands of years! They are capable of incredible speed because of an oversized windpipe, large lungs and a large heart. Pronghorns run with their mouths open to foster intake of oxygen, of which they require three times more than other similarly sized animals. They have more mitochondria in their muscle cells for power and padded hooves to withstand terrain at high speeds. There are tales (perhaps of the tall variety) of pronghorn racing horses and trains for sport, with one report citing in excess of 80 mph. They are the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. They are the second fastest land mammal in the world behind……you guessed it…..the African cheetah.

herd running

There are now an estimated 700,000 pronghorn in the wild, with recovery achieved from establishment of hunting restrictions and habitat protection. But there are two subspecies of pronghorn, the sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis) and the peninsular pronghorn (Antilocapra americana peninsularis), that have required cooperative recovery efforts to prevent extinction. Both of these subspecies have the assistance of U.S. zoos in propagation and technical assistance with herd management.

The sonoran pronghorn is now estimated to have a wild population of 200-800 between U.S. and Mexico, but their population had dwindled down to a mere 21 in 2002 following a severe drought. Mexican populations have been listed on the Endangered Species List since 1967, and are also listed on the IUCN CITES Appendix 1. In 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with biologists in several zoos, including the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo, and with the Mexican government to begin a captive breeding program. Seven sonoran pronghorn were captured for a captive-breeding program and a square mile of desert was set aside at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, just north of the Mexican border, to hold the captive animals. Water guzzlers and supplemental food was provided within the enclosure and the pronghorn were protected from predators such as coyotes and mountain lions. These pronghorn successfully reproduced and the captive population grew. In 2006, the refuge began releasing some of the young males. The captive-reared sonoran pronghorn were able to integrate well with the wild population. So far, 91 sonoran pronghorn have been released into the wild and as of December, 2012, the overall wild population of sonoran pronghorn is estimated to be at 160 animals and growing. Also since 2006, captive-bred sonoran pronghorn, some from U.S. zoo propagation programs, have been released into the wild across several different sites in the U.S. and Mexico, including Barry M. Goldwater National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.

The peninsular pronghorn is one of the most endangered large mammals in Mexico today, with a wild population lingering around 200, and is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. The Mexican government, the Los Angeles Zoo and a sponsorship by the Ford Motor Company have implemented an in situ recovery program within El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve (VBR) on the Baja California Sur peninsula. In 1997, the estimated population of peninsular pronghorn was 170. From 1998 to 2003, a total of sixteen wild fawns, which were hand-reared, and nine wild adults were captured to form a founding captive herd. This herd is protected within an elaborate fenced area with outer measurements of 1,400 x 1,850 meters and inner features such as moveable fences. There were challenges but by 2003, there were 85 births and only 20 deaths in the captive herd. Today, there are 250 adults and 40 young pronghorn in the captive population. The captive peninsular pronghorn are used to supplement the wild peninsular pronghorn population and maintain wild population genetic diversity.

The pronghorn story is just one of many examples of how biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world are collaborating with governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.

All photos are of sonoran pronghorn and obtained from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service website

North Carolina Aquariums: Partnering with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Local Community to Save Sea Turtles

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchlings. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchlings. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Maymie Higgins

The moonlight reflected off the North Carolina shoreline, illuminating the way she used her strongly developed forelimbs to drag herself several yards towards the dunes, just as her mother had done.  This Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) is truly a miracle.  She survived to the age of ten to thirty years, becoming a young adult, which is an age only 1 in 1000 sea turtles reach.  Her ability to migrate thousands of miles and find the same beach upon which she had hatched, known as natal philopatry, is a miracle as well.  In the waters just offshore, she will continue to mate several times in the seasonal nesting grounds, and come ashore up to seven times to deposit and bury her eggs in a nest made by excavating and then covering a hole 18 inches deep in the sand. Each clutch might contain 100-126 eggs; even under the best-case scenario, the odds are against any of her offspring surviving until adulthood.  And while this sea turtle is fortunate to return to a birthplace that has not been destroyed by development or climate change, as so many nesting sites have, she cannot stay to protect the nests.  She has no physical capabilities to protect her eggs or to even to survive on land for very long. The eggs and hatchlings are on their own.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle nests make up the vast majority of nests on North Carolina’s beaches. Four other of the seven species of sea turtles, Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and rarely, the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) will also nest there. A fifth sea turtle species, the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), visits North Carolina waters, but does not nest.

All sea turtles are listed as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  There are a number of factors, in addition to development and climate change, that adversely affect the survival rate in sea turtles.  Before eggs have hatched, many of them are preyed upon by beach residents including raccoons, foxes, birds and humans. Hatchlings that successfully emerge must follow the moonlight to guide them to the ocean, but artificial light often leads hatchlings in the wrong direction, leading to car strikes in the roadways that run parallel to the shore.  Other predators for hatchlings include crabs, more species of birds and, for those sea turtles making it safely into the water, carnivorous fish.  Sea turtles cannot retract their heads into their carapace like other turtles and the skin of hatchlings is not yet tough, therefore providing no protection from predators.

Sea turtle hatchlings are also very tiny.  When I was an aquarist intern at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, we affectionately called our four publicly exhibited hatchlings “chicken nuggets” because they are about that size and weight at hatching.  With all these initial threats, the greatest threat still is at sea in the form of incidental capture in gill nets, shrimp trawls and other fishing gear.

In 1983, the N.C. Sea Turtle Protection Program was created by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and now coordinates the efforts of more than 1000 volunteers annually who monitor sea turtle nests along 330 miles of beaches from May to October during the 50-60 day incubation period.  An elaborate network that includes state and federal natural resource agencies, private organizations, veterinarians, wildlife rehabbers, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and all three North Carolina Aquariums combine their skills and resources to protect nests. These efforts include nighttime nest sitting, rescue and rehabilitation of injured sea turtles and release of those healthy enough to survive in the wild again.

The North Carolina Aquariums play a key role in providing temporary housing for hatchlings that are too weak to get to the ocean on their own or are found far from the ocean when artificial light has led them in the wrong direction.  Once the hatchlings show the ability to eat and dive effectively, they are released into the Gulf Stream offshore.  Some of the hatchlings remain at the aquariums until reaching one to four years of age and during that time serve as ambassadors for educating aquarium visitors about sea turtle conservation.  These turtles are released as well.

All three North Carolina Aquariums respond to help sea turtles that have been stranded by causes such as propeller strike, hypothermia and entanglement in fishing gear.  The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is home to the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) Rehabilitation Facility. The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island provides medical care for turtles rescued in the central and southern parts of the North Carolina coast. The North Carolina Aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher also take in turtles in need of rehabilitation.

On a broader scale, it is not unusual for the North Carolina Aquariums to take in cold-stunned sea turtles rescued in other states and give them care and housing until fully recovered and healthy enough for release. Sea turtles are cold-blooded and therefore cannot regulate their own body temperature internally. They are vulnerable to the temperature of their environment and must move to warmer or cooler environments to thermoregulate. Cold-stunning occurs when sea turtles are suddenly exposed to cold water, causing them to become lethargic and unable to swim to warmer waters.  More often this happens to juveniles who have not left feeding grounds prior to the first cold front, usually in late November or early December.  There can be as many as 100 cold-stunned sea turtles being held over winter in the aquariums, sea turtle hospital and in other wildlife rehabilitation locations approved by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Sea turtles are of ecological importance for many reasons.  Unhatched eggs and hatchlings that do not survive provide nutrients for sea dune vegetation. Sea turtle eggs also serve as food source for predators in the ecosystem and as a food source for humans in some parts of the world.  On the ocean floor, sea turtles graze on seagrass, which stimulates productivity and nutritional content of seagrass blades.  Hawksbill Sea Turtles forage on marine sponges from coral reefs, allowing the coral to colonize and grow and preventing sponges from dominating the reefs, which are important to other sea life as well. Leatherback Sea Turtles have been known to eat up to 440 pounds of jellyfish in a day, providing some control over the increase in jellyfish due to commercial overfishing of finfish populations. Sea turtles have on their carapaces barnacles, algae and other organisms known as epibionts. Fish species such as sheepshead, wrasse, and angelfish as well as shrimp create “cleaning stations” which sea turtles visit to have these organisms eaten off. Birds often consume these epibionts too, while also taking advantage of a floating turtle oasis that provides refuge from sharks or just for a roosting rest in the sun during migration.

The sea turtle story is one of many examples of biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world working hard with other governmental organizations, NGOs, volunteers and sometimes even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.