Let’s Talk about Pets

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Let’s Talk about Pets

First things first: I love my pets. My family has always had pets, from fish to hamsters to hermit crabs to rats (my mom was particularly happy when those were out of the house). The current menagerie includes two cats, a dog, a horse, and two fish. 

Pets teach us responsibility, provide us joy (how many cat videos have you watched today?), and can even help us live longer. And they’re popular: 63% of American households have pets, resulting in more than 360 million pets in the United States alone. That results in an absolutely massive industry: Pets and pet products account for $40.8 billion in spending in the United States every year. 

That probably doesn't come as a surprise, but this might: Many released pets are now considered invasive species. 

Even when people buy animals with the best intentions, a lot of things can change throughout the course of pet ownership. Maybe they realize their hubby is allergic to cats, or that snake eats way more than anticipated. Maybe the new apartment building has a “no pets” rule, or that teeny baby turtle outgrew his aquarium. Regardless of the reason, many pet owners will ultimately face a difficult decision: what do you do with a pet you can no longer care for? 

Releasing pets into the wild may be considered a “humane” response by unknowing owners (thanks a lot, Finding Nemo), but this problematic for a number of reasons. First, a significant change in environment will likely be stressful for the pet and they could even die. They also might be carrying diseases or pathogens that could spread to native wildlife, which is why even seemingly innocuous actions like flushing a dead fish could be dangerous. Lastly, in the right climate, released pets could establish breeding populations and become invasive. 

This is more common than you might think. Here are a few examples of released pets becoming problematic in the United States: 

  • Lionfish: Originally from the Indo-Pacific, these venomous fish are wreaking havoc on native fish populations in the Western Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. Considered the “Hoover vacuums of the sea”, lionfish will eat anything up to half their size. Despite being highly invasive, they are still imported in the States in large numbers: 46,000 lionfish were imported in 2011 alone. 
  • Cats: Your cuddly kittens have a deadly side. Domestic outdoor and feral cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals every year, leading cats to be considered one of the largest human-linked threats to wildlife in the country. 
  • Giant African Land Snail: These massive mollusks are one of the word’s largest snails and consume more than 500 types of plants. To top it off, they can damage plaster and stucco structures and can carry a parasitic nematode that causes meningitis in humans. 
  • Burmese python:  Reaching up to 17 ft in length, Burmese pythons are some of the largest snakes in the world. Now established throughout South Florida, Burmese pythons pose a serious risk to native wildlife and domestic pets. More than 2,000 pythons have been removed from the Everglades National Park since 2002, a figure that likely represents a small fraction of the population. 

And the list goes on (check out this site if you want to read more). Thankfully, there are definitive steps that we can take as pet owners to make sure we aren't contributing to this massive problem. 

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  • First and foremost: never, ever release your pets into the wild. 
  • Keep your pet in appropriate housing to minimize chances of escaping. 
  • Properly dispose of materials in your pet’s habitat, including bedding, tank water, terrarium plants, and anything that might carry pathogens or “hitchhikers” from your pet. 
  • Never release live pet food like crickets or feeder fish. Always make sure these animals are kept in secure containers so they cannot escape. 
  • Thoroughly do your research before buying a pet. Ask how care will change as the pet gets older to make sure you’re equipped to take care of the animal throughout its lifetime. 
  • Ask your pet store about their return policy — some stores will take animals back past the normal 30 day return period. 
  • Check out the Don’t Release Me website and other pet resources if you have additional questions. 

Invasive species are a massive threat to ecosystems and economies worldwide, costing $120 billion in damages each year in the United States alone. We all need to do our part to prevent the next big species invasion by practicing responsible pet ownership. 

The environment (and your pets!) will thank you. 

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The Lionfish Invasion on CBS Sunday Morning

Yesterday I was watching CBS Sunday Morning and saw...me!! Certainly a pleasant surprise.

 

I'm always happy to see information about the lionfish invasion in mainstream media -- the more people who are aware of the problem, the better. Especially when it features footage and images from the REEF Environmental Education Foundation (including some of my images from the lionfish study in Curacao last year). 

See the full story on CBS Sunday Morning's website

 

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Invasive Species Spotlight: African Tulip Tree

Name: Spathodea campanulata

Native Range: West Africa

Introduced Range: African tulip trees can be found in many countries throughout Central and South America, Asia, and the Caribbean. They are primarily invasive in the South Pacific. 

Introduction: Now a widespread and problematic species throughout the Pacific Islands, it was intentionally introduced in Fiji in the 1930s as a street and household ornamental tree. 

Why are they harmful?: Known for it’s bright, trumpet-shaped flowers, these fast-growing trees are considered one of the world’s top 100 most invasive species. They crowd out native species and are extremely difficult to remove as they can grow back from root fragments and its wind-dispersed seeds. They can quickly become the dominant forest tree which has detrimental impacts on the vines and animals that depend on native trees.

In Fiji, agriculture is the largest sector of the economy, but only 16% of the island is suitable for farming. Many locals will clear sections of land to make it more amenable to farming, resulting in damaged land that is ideal for colonizing trees like the African tulip. The problem in Fiji as grown over the last ten years, and now African tulip trees make up 20% of regrowth forests previously cleared for agriculture. In a survey conducted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the trees appeared on 98% of the farms surveyed. 

Methods of control: Young trees can be hand-pulled when the soil is soft, but adult trees need to be chopped down and their stumps coated with herbicide. Herbicides can either be painted, sprayed, or injected into the tree. 

African tulip trees dominate a piece of land previously cleared for farming. 

African tulip trees dominate a piece of land previously cleared for farming. 

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In Defense of Being Alone

Photo credit: Sean Sheerwood

Photo credit: Sean Sheerwood

I find that I am rarely, if ever, alone. 

I don’t say this to boast, but rather to state an observation. I’ve noticed this especially since moving to D.C. I live with four other people in a one-floor apartment, and although I adore my roommates, this means the apartment consistently hums with activity. I work in a large company with an abundance of young people, and free time is spent together at lunch, at evening happy hours, and on coffee breaks. I am also fortunate to live in the same city as many of my close college friends, meaning a weekend seldom goes by without suggestions of parties, events, or activities around the city. 

I love it. Weeks fly by in a haze of work and friendship, and I count myself incredibly lucky because of it. 

But at the moment, my situation is drastically different. I am in a foreign country where I know no one, in a city I’ve never been, living with a family I’ve never met. I’m 16 hours ahead from my friends and family in the States, making communication difficult. My days are shockingly unstructured and for the first time in a long time, my time is entirely my own. I have no responsibilities except for those I impress upon myself as I attempt to pull together a compelling narrative though my research. 

And I spend a lot of time alone. 

On a practical level, the alone time means I’m able to truly throw myself into my work, which is ultimately the reason why I’m here. But there’s another result, too: being alone means you don’t have friends and concerts and commitments to distract you from your thoughts. The emotions that can get pushed aside in the flurry of day-to-day life no longer have a place to hide. Being alone means taking a deep breath and pulling out the mirror: not the blurry, faded mirror, but the harsh, cutting, honest mirror and taking a closer look at yourself.

This closer look isn’t always pretty — and it shouldn’t be. During my quiet nights and long drives, I’ve tackled doubts about my career path, fears of traveling solo, and frustrations from missed opportunities. But I’ve also marveled at the unusual turns my life has taken since graduation, the serendipitous moments that led me to new opportunities, the inspiring group of people I’m blessed to call my friends, and the pride I feel for all of us making it this far in the “real world”.

Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s (really) lonely. But in many ways, it’s therapeutic. I feel more in touch with my goals, both personally and professionally, because I’ve have the time to really explore them. Plus, it makes you push outside of your comfort zone and meet new friends everywhere you go; between hostels and dive boats and restaurants, I’ve met enough people to couch surf in a dozen different countries.

Of course, I miss my friends and family terribly and will be thrilled to get back to my bustling life in D.C. But I hope I carry this lesson with me, and never forget the importance of taking time to reflect.

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Diving with Bull Sharks

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Diving with Bull Sharks

I never considered what I would do if I came face-to-face with a bull shark. But on Monday morning I found myself laying flat on my stomach 93 feet below the ocean, surrounded by over 50 massive bull sharks. My adrenaline was off the charts, and I had to focus on my breathing (and not making any sudden movements) so I wouldn’t blow straight through my air. 

It was a indescribable experience. The sheer grace and power of these creatures sent shivers down my spine. There was also something quite humbling about being so close to something that could kill you but chooses not to. 

Here’s a quick glimpse of the dive. Would you give it a try?

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Hiking in Fiji's First National Park (or, why you should listen to park rangers)

I’ve always been really bad with directions. As soon as someone begins to give me step-by-step instructions on how to get somewhere, my mind goes fuzzy. Probably because deep down I assume I’ll get lost anyway. 

And that’s what happened yesterday morning as I stood in the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park visitor center as a young guide tried to explain the park’s best hiking route. As he pointed to a series of colored lines on the map, I tried to remember if I had put an extra granola bar in my backpack or not. He seemed to be finishing up, but I couldn't tell. 

“And be sure to take a walking stick for the wild dogs”. 

Excuse me? That certainly got my attention. 

“What? Do they play fetch or something?” I asked. 

He chuckled. “No, they’re much less likely to attack you if you have a stick in your hand”. 

Well that was unexpected, I thought to myself as I gathered the map and my water bottle. I walked to the trail head, taking my time selecting a formidable-looking walking stick from the pile next to the entrance sign. Then I walked into the forest. 

There wasn’t another soul in the entire park; the early hour and a rainy morning had likely driven off other hikers. It was like all of Fiji had been presented just for me. I spent the first hour walking slowly across the hill crests, soaking in the 360 degree views of western Fiji’s forests, farmland, and coast line. 

But my appreciation for the park was a little bit tainted. Every time I looked through my camera lens I found another invasive species. The park was riddled with attractive but extremely harmful invasives, including the bright African tulip tree that’s considered one of Fiji’s peskiest invaders. On the first lookout point alone I could see three different species of invasive plants (that I know of!) in one photo. 

UGH invasives get out of here. 

UGH invasives get out of here. 

The trail continued on, leading me up a steep sand dune and down to the water’s edge. Strongly-worded signs discouraged swimming due to big waves and rough currents, stating at the end that “Your safety is our concern but your responsibility”. The morning’s storms had left the sea a foreboding shade of midnight blue, reflected in the sky by dark clouds. 

I sat on a pale piece of driftwood. The seascape was framed by the towering sand dunes behind me, leaving me feeling thrillingly and horrifyingly small. 

Yea....I wouldn't swim in that. 

Yea....I wouldn't swim in that. 

I’m not sure how long I spent by the water, but the quickening winds and light rain ultimately led me to gather my things and start walking. I realized that I had forgotten my walking stick somewhere down the beach, so I quickly grabbed a piece of bamboo from the large piles of driftwood. 

As I searched for the sign leading me back to the trail, I finally saw evidence of the wild dogs. There were a series of paw prints leading up the dune….a lot of paw prints. I snapped a few photos of the sand, thinking this would be great for the blog. But my finger froze on the shutter as I heard a growl behind me. Then another, and another, until the ground seemed to rumble with the noise. 

Had to include in the blog since this photo caused my mess anyway. 

Had to include in the blog since this photo caused my mess anyway. 

I turned slowly to see eight ragged dogs staring at me, looking pissed. My mind jumped to the advice my dad gave me when I would walk around the neighborhood alone: If a dog ever threatens you, don’t run. I stood with every muscle locked into place, one hand on my camera and the other on my walking stick. The standoff lasted for about fifteen seconds (was it only fifteen? it felt like an hour) before the largest dog turned and trotted up the dune and out of sight, quickly followed by the rest of the pack. The last straggler turned at the top of the hill and barked at me, almost as a warning to not come back on their turf. 

I didn’t need telling twice. 

Snapped this photo then hauled ass. 

Snapped this photo then hauled ass. 

The last leg of the hike was through a mahogany forest that was planted in the 1960s to stop the encroachment of the dunes onto nearby villages. It was lovely, to be sure, but I was a little preoccupied ensuring my four-legged friends were safely behind me. I emerged back at the visitor’s center twenty minutes later, sweaty but safe and clutching my walking stick like a prize. 

I told the ranger what had happened and he seemed oddly surprised. “Did you have a walking stick?” he asked. I nodded. “Well that’s why they didn’t bother you. They’ve learned to respect people with walking sticks”. 

As I walked back to the car, I promised myself that I would always, always listen to the advice of park rangers. I even promised myself I’d pay more attention to the directions too, just for good measure. 

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My Surprise Pit Crew

After a week of unrelenting dark clouds and rain, the weather gods blessed Fiji with a perfect day. My natural response, of course, was to go diving. 

Afterwards I climbed into my rental car and headed west to a hostel outside of Sigatoka, a small town that is close to my interview locations for the next four days. The sun was shining, my windows were down, my hair was salty, and Pearl Jam was on the radio. It was bliss. 

Seriously, it was gorgeous. 

Seriously, it was gorgeous. 

An imposing honk snapped me from my trance. A tractor trailer was tailgating me hard. Stubbornly, I stuck to my pace, determined not to satisfy the driver. Thirty seconds later he sped up to pass me, despite the fact there was a double yellow line. Are you serious? I grumbled to myself. 

But he didn’t pass me. He pulled up right beside me on the opposite side of the road and gestured furiously to my back tire. 

I don’t care where you are, that is never, ever a good sign. 

I quickly pulled off by a nearby village, the tractor trailer on my tail. In fifteen seconds my perfect day took a drastic turn when I realized that yes, my tire was indeed very flat. My stomach dropped: I was at least twenty miles from the next town, and I had absolutely no cell service. 

The three men from the tractor trailer came up to me. They didn’t speak much English, but the tire pretty much spoke for itself. 

Before I could even begin to come up with a plan, they launched into action. One went into my trunk to grab the spare, one went back to the truck to get his tools, and one searched under the passenger seat of my car for the jack. They moved as if they were responsible for getting me on the track to finish the last leg of the Indy 500, and I just stood there, gaping. 

You hate to see that.

You hate to see that.

By this time we had amassed quite an audience. No less than a dozen kids from the local village had emerged to scope out the scene, some asking me about my travels and some just giggling quietly behind the car. One of the truckers kindly suggested I lock my car as a curious (nosey?) youth began poking around inside my dive bag. 

Everyone who walked by stopped to look. At one point there were four men huddled around my tire, until one of the truckers barked at them and they scattered. Kids peered into my windows and climbed into my trunk and watched the proceedings with earnest. I tried to talk to the truckers but the language barrier prevented us from getting too far, so I just smiled and said “vinaka, vinaka” or “thank you thank you” over and over. 

Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?

Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?

In ten minutes it was over. The truck driver pointed to the tire then pointed to me and just said “Slow”. Ok, I can drive slow, I said. I ran to my backpack and pulled out a $50FJD bill (about $23  USD) and tried to give it to him. He looked down at me without saying a word and walked back to the truck. 

I stood stunned on the side of the road, truly worried that I had offended him. But thankfully he appeared a minute later, clutching a $20FJD bill to give me as change. 

“For Fiji Bitters!” he said. That I understood — Fiji Bitters was the locally brewed beer (there were signs absolutely everywhere), and $30FJD was enough to buy each of them a round or two. I smiled and thanked him again.

I made it safely to my hostel and arranged with the rental company to have the car fixed tomorrow. Unexpected hiccups like these come with the travel territory, but it makes all the difference to have folks on your side. Even (or especially) when they’re strangers.

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