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How to Teach Your Kids About Zoos

We owe our children honest answers about the morality of animal captivity

On September 6, National Geographic Kids posted a Family Field Guide, "How to Answer Challenging Questions About Animals at the Zoo," by Laura Goertzel, digital director for the magazine. Goertzel was forced to consider the problem of animal captivity when a bobcat called Ollie escaped from her cage at the National Zoo in Washington, DC in January. Goertzel's kids began asking questions about how Ollie escaped and why Ollie would want to do so. 

photo of lions at national zooPhoto by Steve Sarro, Smithsonian’s National ZooIn January, a female bobcat known as Ollie escaped her cage at the National Zoo. She was returned to her enclosure after being recaptured. A recent post in National Geographic dodges challenging questions about the morality of keeping wild animals like Ollie captive.

"Our visits to the zoo haven't been the same since," Goertzel writes. "My kids continue to inquire about the lives of captive animals, and those questions are often difficult to answer. (My answer to the above question: Just like Curious George, Ollie wanted to learn about what was going on outside the zoo and found a hole in her cage to squeeze through.)"

These are teachable moments, says Goertzel, and she offers some of her favorite questions from kids and tips on how to answer them:

Question 1: Where are all the elephants?

Explain to children that just as they do, animals enjoy time by themselves. That's why modern parks give animals a space away from visitors to rest.

Question 2: Why does that lion look so bored?

The animals probably aren't bored — they're just resting. Many wild animals, including lions, do spend most of their day chilling out…. (In fact, the king of the beasts is considered the laziest of the big cats, spending 16 to 20 hours a day sleeping or resting.) A zoo environment is not much different.

Question 3: Is that panda happy living in a cage?

Let's face it. No matter how innovative the spaces are, seeing animals in enclosures can be hard for children. So I use that question to teach my kids that many of the animals at the zoo are endangered or threatened, and that zoos can keep them safe from poachers, habitat destruction, and other threats.

And so goes the advice of Laura Goertzel. She has chosen to answer the pure, perceptive, empathetic questions of her children with bullshit and rationalization. She suggests that we all do the same.   

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Koch Brothers Versus Small Town USA

In Review: Company Town

The riveting Company Town is one of the hardest-hitting documentaries ever made about environmental racism in America. It is to the eco-justice movement what Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Best Documentary Academy Award winner Harlan County USA was to class struggle or Al Gore’s 2007 An Inconvenient Truth was to climate change or Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated 2010 Gasland was to fracking. It appears to be a classic case of environmental injustice, wherein people of color and the poor are singled out to bear the brunt of well-funded, string-pulling corporations and businesses.

photo of Pastor BouiePhoto by Nicolaus Czarnecki/Company TownPastor David Bouie has taken on the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant in Cossett, AL, which he believes is responsible for "door-to-door cancer" in the community.

Company Town is co-directed, co-written, and co-produced by two women filmmakers, Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian. The “company” of the nonfiction film’s title is that bête noire of the American Left: Koch Industries, the nation’s second largest privately held firm, worth $115 billion per year and headed by heirs Charles and David Koch, who are widely perceived as the Bond super-villains of the one percent, the billionaires’ Blofelds. In this David and Goliath saga, Charles and David Koch are portrayed as the Goliath trying to crush small town USA.

The Koch Brothers own the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant, which produces Angel Soft and Quilted Northern toilet paper, Brawny paper towels, and Dixie paper cups. The factory is located in the documentary’s “town”: Crossett, Arkansas, a hamlet of only 5,500 residents — many of them Black (some 42 percent, according to the 2010 census) and working class. According to local activists, such as David Bouie, an African-American pastor who features heavily in the documentary, Crossett suffers from “door-to-door cancer,” as Bouie puts it, with skyrocketing cancer rates purportedly due to the Kochs’ factory’s spewing of toxicity.

Georgia-Pacific is the township’s main employer and Company Town contends that due to the tremendous influence the plant’s owners wield, government rules and regulations are flouted — hence the film’s title, as Crossett appears to be owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Kochs, who have the town’s residents over a barrel. Bouie, who worked at the factory for 10 years, contends that 11 out of the 15 homes on Penn Road, where he lives, have been stricken by cancer. Like Preacher Casey, the clergyman turned union organizer in John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, Pastor Bouie …more

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One of World’s Largest Marine Protected Areas Created Off Easter Island Coast

Rapa Nui park will protect 142 endemic species, 27 threatened with extinction

One of the world’s largest marine protection areas has been created off the coast of Easter Island.

The 740,000-square-kilometer Rapa Nui marine park is roughly the size of the Chilean mainland and will protect at least 142 endemic marine species, including 27 threatened with extinction.

photo of Easter Island fishPhoto by Eduardo Sorensen/The Pew Charitable TrustThe new marine protected area off the coast of Easter Island is home to at least 142 endemic marine species.

An astonishing 77 percent of the Pacific Ocean’s fish abundance occurs here and recent expeditions discovered several new species previously unknown to science.

Apex predators found in the conservation zone include scalloped hammerhead sharks, minke, humpback and blue whales, and four species of sea turtle.

Matt Rand, the director of the Pew Bertarelli ocean legacy project, which campaigned for the park, said: “This marine reserve will have a huge global significance for the conservation of oceans and of indigenous people’s ways of life.

“The Rapa Nui have long suffered from the loss of timber, declining ecosystems and declining populations. Now they are experiencing a resurgence based on ensuring the health of the oceans.”

Plans for the marine park were first announced at a conference in 2015, at which the former US president Barack Obama declared his “special love for the ocean” in a video message.

The plans were confirmed in a speech by Chilean president Michelle Bachelet on Saturday.

The marine park’s creation was enabled by a 73 percent vote in favor of the conservation zone from Easter Island’s 3,000 Rapa Nui population in a referendum on September 3, after five years of consultations.

Extractive industries and industrial fishing will be banned inside the reserve, but the Rapa Nui will be allowed to continue their traditional artisanal fishing on small boats, using hand lines with rocks for weights.

Ludovic Burns Tuki, the director of the Mesa del mar coalition of more than 20 Rapa Nui groups, said: “This is a historic moment — a great and beautiful moment for the Rapa Nui, for the world and for our oceans.

“We think this process can be an example for the creation of other marine reserves that we need to protect our oceans — with a respect for the human dimension.”

After the creation of a comparable marine protection area around the nearby Pitcairn Islands last year, proposals for …more

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Tap Water Across the Globe Contains Plastic, Study Shows

Eighty-three percent of water samples worldwide tested positive for microscopic fibers

Tiny plastic fibers or “microfibers” have been found in the far corners of the world — in the oceans, in remote lakes and rivers, in fish, salt, and honey, and in the air we breathe. But until now one research area — our drinking water — remained unexamined.

According to new research published this week by Orb Media, tap water and plastic bottled water in cities on five continents is contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers. Scientists say they don’t know how these fibers reach household taps, or what their health risks might be, but experts suspect plastic fibers may transfer toxic chemicals when consumed by animals and humans.

photo of tap waterPhoto by Steve JohnsonAccording to new research, water around the world is contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers.

"The contamination defies geography: The number of fibers found in a sample of tap water from the Trump Grill, at Trump Tower in Manhattan, was equal to that found in samples from Beirut," reads the Orb report. Orb also found microfibers in bottled water, and in homes that use reverse-osmosis filters. Eighty-three percent of samples worldwide tested positive for microscopic plastic fibers.

“This is frightening information. It’s time for all of us to wake up,” Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder and CEO Dianna Cohen said of the new research. “Microfibers are insidious. If we’re finding them in everything around us, the obvious solution is to go to the source, to refocus our energy, and to move away from toxic plastics.”

What does the new report mean for our drinking water? Jane Patton, managing director of PPC, which is a project of Earth Island Institute, advised contacting officials to make your voice heard. “We believe access to clean water is a human right. Make sure your city government knows that you expect them to keep your drinking water safe. Stand up and say ‘I rely on this resource.’ Remember that we have a structure in place to influence the cleanliness of our tap water and that is not the case with the plastic bottled water industry.”

The news about plastic microfibers in our drinking water comes on the heels of study by Plastic Soup Foundation(PSF) published in May 2017, reporting the presence of  microfibers in plankton, farmed and in wild mussels, sea salt, and even honey.

According to PSF, microfibers can enter our water supply through machine washing synthetic clothing such as fleece, polyester, and …more

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Texas Prisoners Describe Nightmarish Conditions, Exposure to Floodwaters Following Harvey

Superstorm takes toll on prison populations living in shadow of state's fossil fuel industry

graphic depicting a prison

A set of emails obtained by Truthout and Earth Island Journal describe nightmarish conditions inside the federal prison complex in Beaumont, Texas, after flooding last week cut off power — including air-conditioning — and the water supply. The emails were sent via Corrlinks, an email system used by federal prisoners.

The emails reveal morbid conditions endured by prisoners living under lockdown after Hurricane Harvey, then downgraded to a tropical depression, dropped 35 inches of rain on the area. Truthout redacted identifying information due to the danger of retaliation by prison officials. Since the storm, the prisoners have been limited to five emails and five short phone calls per person for the month.

Multiple prisoners and their relatives detailed how the lack of running water caused some men to defecate in bags, and others to drink contaminated toilet water. Many say they have seen men lose consciousness in the units, succumbing to the extreme heat and putrid fumes wafting through the cellblocks from bags of excrement, non-flushable Porta-Potties and backed-up toilets, as well as the stench of the men's unwashed bodies after having not showered in more than 10 days. According to their messages, they have also been in need of clean laundry.

Prisoners described receiving only two bottles of water a day as temperatures reached close to 100 degrees, and said that prison officials have been turning the water on once a day to flush toilets, while warning the men not to drink the visibly contaminated water.

photo of Texas PrisonPhoto by Texas Department of Corrections An evacuated prison in the flood zone during Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017.

"WE ARE LIVING IN DEPLORABLE CONDITIONS IN OUR CELLS WITH TWO BOTTLES OF WATER QA DAY NO TOILET OUR OUR SHIT IS GAGGIN US AND WE HAVE NO VENTILLATION BUT WE ARE ALIVE BARELY," wrote one prisoner via email in a desperate plea for help.

Others said they had gone without a hot meal after Harvey made its second landfall over Beaumont, receiving only peanut butter and jelly, and bologna sandwiches twice a day. Further, the men told their relatives they have been in desperate need of medical care, describing prisoners with staph infections, rashes and heat-related illnesses going untreated.

Prisoners at the medium-security unit updated their relatives Thursday, however, that they had finally gotten showers, and some said they received their first hot meal.

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Northernmost Dugong Population Threatened by US Military Base

Construction could push marine mammal towards extinction in Okinawa, say advocates

Masako Suzuki searched for signs of dugongs in the lines of missing seagrass in the Oura Bay in Henoko, Okinawa, until the barrier of orange buoys went up, preventing her from doing that.  Dugongs — rare, gentle marine mammals that are close relatives of the manatee — eat in a vacuum-like manner, slurping seagrass from the ocean floor. In a process that Suzuki calls “line research,” divers examine the shallow seagrass beds and trace the dugongs’ eating patterns with a long rope.

photo of dugongPhoto by Julien Willem Advocates suspect only a few dugongs still live in Okinawa. Construction of a new US military base would pave over some of the endangered animal's last remaining habitat.

“There is a lot of wildlife in the seagrass beds,” says Suzuki. “Traditionally, the dugong has been a symbol of a rich, abundant sea environment. The dugongs that are here can thrive if we preserve a rich marine environment.”

But Suzuki and other activists in Okinawa fear this environment is under attack. These days, a barrier of bright orange buoys protecting the US military construction site at Camp Schwab prevents divers and researchers like Suzuki from conducting research in the very area inhabited by the few dugongs they suspect still live in Okinawa. The new base, in fact, would pave over some of the endangered animals’ last remaining habitat.

The construction of a new airstrip at Camp Schwab, part of 20-year-old plan to close the Futenma Air Station on a more crowded part of the island, is viewed by the US military as key to maintaining a strong presence in East Asia. But activists have consistently fought the construction for more than two decades.

At the center of that fight is the endangered dugong, which has long been a cultural icon and centuries-old symbol of heroism for Okinawans. For local activists, the dugong has become a symbol of a deeper struggle. “Okinawan people see themselves in the dugongs,” says Hideki Yoshikawa, the director of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project.

In legends, dugongs save people by warning them about impending disasters, and in modern children’s books, the creatures defend children from bullies. “In these stories, the dugong is always portrayed as weak and very vulnerable, but because of these vulnerabilities they have some strength because people want to protect them,” Yoshikawa says.

In one of the most popular folktales, a dugong saves a fisherman from a tsunami after the man frees the dugong …more

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Likely Carcinogen Contaminates Drinking Water of 90 Million Americans, Report Finds

Trump's pick to head chemical safety office at EPA has downplayed dangers of the toxin, say advocates

According to a new report by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, the drinking water of more than a quarter of Americans — some 90 million people — tested postive for a likely carcinogen known as 1,4-dioxane between 2010 and 2015. And public water systems serving more than 7 million people in 27 states have average 1,4-dioxane concentrations that exceed the level US Environmental Protection Agency has said can increase the risk of cancer.

photo of woman drinking from water fountainPhoto by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources According to a new report, a likely carcinogen was detected in the public water systems serving nearly 90 million Americans.

1,4-dioxane water contamination is linked to several sources, not least of which is the use of the chemical as an industrial solvents to dissolve oily substances. It is also a byproduct of plastic production and manufacturing of other chemicals, and can contaminate drinking water through wastewater discharge from industrial facilities, as well as due to leaching from Superfund and hazardous waste sites.

In addition to being a likely carcinogen (in California, the chemical is listed as a known carcinogen), 1,4-dioxane exposure has also been linked to liver and kidney damage, lung problems, and eye and skin irritation. Some studies also suggest a link between 1,4-dioxane exposure among pregnant women and higher rates of pregnancy loss and complication, though the results were not conclusive.

Manufacturers can alter production methods or treat wastewater to reduce 1,4-dioxane contamination before it enters a community’s water supply. But Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist with EWG says that once 1,4-dioxane has made it’s way into drinking water, it’s hard to address, adding that common water filters are ineffective, and expensive filters only partly work. “It’s tough,” Stoiber says, “because once this chemical is in ground water or surface water, it’s really difficult to remove.”

And yet, there is no federal legal limit for 1,4-dioxane — the EPA has not regulated the toxin under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

small image of interactive mapmap courtesy EWGClick or tap for an interactive map of 1,4-dioxane-tainted water across the country.

“The EPA can set a legal drinking water standard, a maximum contaminant limit,” Stoiber explains. “They can also limit discharges from some of these industrial sources that are polluting surface water, and they can set regulations for industrial uses under the Toxic Substances Control Act [TSCA].”

Americans are also exposed to 1,4-dioxane through common …more

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