You may have heard something online or from your vet about the issue of dogs eating grain free foods sometimes showing low levels of taurine in their bloodwork. Since then, we’ve had a number of customers that come saying their vet told them to switch to a food containing grains. One local vet in our area just sent out an email about Heart Disease and grain free foods, and also advocating for the use of “Meat By-Products” in pet foods, and we’d like to address both of these topics to help you learn more and make educated decisions.
Grain Free vs. Grain Friendly Diets:
The truth is, all processed dry pet food diets are compromised nutritionally due to high-heat, high-pressure extrusion and the need for starchy carbs to bind them and make those little crunchy nuggets. Critical amino acids like taurine that are found in muscle meats and organs are fragile and very heat sensitive, and so become damaged by processing. It’s true that another variable that might exacerbate these diet related heart problems could very well be the overuse of legumes in dog foods. Some brands use a lot of them because they contain plant proteins that are less expensive than meat proteins, but plant proteins don’t contain those vital amino acids. Large quantities of peas may very well be blocking absorption of those important amino acids found in meat that do vital jobs in your dog’s body like support his heart function. Please read more in this important article – we’ve tried hard to distill the facts and offer suggestions for how to avoid trouble.
One thing that frustrates us is that many traditional vets work closely with brands like Purina and Hills, who are companies eager to use this opportunity to switch nervous consumers back to their formulas that contain corn, wheat, and soy. Some of these well-intentioned vets are simply advising customers to switch to any food containing grains. Please note that foods made with grains also are using plant proteins to save the company money by taking the place of more species appropriate proteins from meat, and these plant proteins also do not contain those valuable amino acids like taurine, just like in grain free foods.
Both corn and wheat are high carb and high glycemic ingredients and can also cause food sensitivities/allergic reactions in dogs. We often see dogs with new troubles come to us after having been on a diet like this, and we are able to reverse these new issues when we remove the foods that contain corn, wheat, and soy and switch to kibbles that have higher quality sources of meat proteins.
More importantly, ingredients such as corn, wheat and soy are likely to contain contaminates that don’t cook out. GMO crops are sprayed with large quantities of RoundUp (glyphosate), and corn is especially problematic as it almost certainly contains dangerous aflatoxins. These are dangerous grain molds, toxic to humans and animals, even in very small amounts. Our most recent stats from 2017 show that 88% of all corn tested nationally was contaminated with aflatoxins, and in some previous years (2012) it has been 100%. A testing agency stated:”With more than ten-years of experience monitoring the occurrence of mycotoxins in livestock feeds, BIOMIN has shown that co-occurrence of mycotoxins (the presence of more than one mycotoxin) is the rule and not the exception” The FDA allows mycotoxins to be at 20 ppb (parts per billion) in pet foods, however science shows that even small amounts of mycotoxins can be dangerous to pets. From the International Journal of Food Microbiology, Drs. Herman J. Boermans and Maxwell C.K. Leung published the report “Mycotoxins and the pet food industry: Toxicological evidence and risk assessment” in 2007. One of the biggest issues of concern discussed, is that existing studies of mycotoxin contamination in pet food overlook the day to day consumption of small amounts of mycotoxins; resulting in “chronic diseases such as liver and kidney fibrosis, infections resulting from immunosuppression and cancer.” In 2005 a Diamond Foods aflatoxin recall resulted in 100 dog deaths.
We don’t have a problem with some grains in foods, and we carry a few lines that have ingredients like oats and barley and rice. All of the kibbles we carry generally have a high percentage of their protein content derived from muscle meats and organs and not plant proteins (even the ones that use some peas). However, you don’t have to run to a food containing grains. The amino acids in all extruded kibbles suffer damage from heat processing. If you shop with us, ask us what percentage of your food’s guaranteed analysis of protein is derived from meat proteins (as opposed to plant proteins). If not, you can 1)call the company and ask this question. If they won’t tell you, perhaps switch brands. 2) Look for a baked kibble (as opposed to extruded) as more of the amino acids survive baking intact. Stella and Chewy’s is one baked kibble we carry. 3) No matter what, consider adding some fresh taurine rich foods to your pet’s dry food. It’s easy, can be inexpensive, and your pet will love it! See here for suggestions
Re: Meat By-Products: One thing they said that we do take issue with is the statement that “Meat By-products” get a bad rap and are actually just contain good organ meats. Organ meats are desirable ingredients, and are far more expensive than “Meat By-products”. Good organ meats would be listed on the label as their own named ingredient, ie: “beef liver” or “beef hearts”, etc. and would be USDA inspected and passed for human consumption. When you look closely at FDA laws concerning pet food ingredients, “Meat By-products” are defined as rendered product that is legally allowed to be a mix of any species of animal, including animals that “died otherwise than by slaughter”. These include animals that died from disease, euthanized animals, condemned/spoiled meats, and roadkill. Rendering facilities are waste management facilities, with separate standards for handling and storing ingredients meant to be rendered. FDA states clearly that these ingredients are acceptable in pet foods. When looking at your ingredient list, it’s important that you see the species of animal mentioned with the proteins and the fat. ie: avoid “Animal Fat” and choose “Chicken Fat”. We love human quality organ meats for pets, and strongly advocate for their use to help supplement naturally occurring amino acids like taurine, cystein and methionine that support heart function, but we avoid By-products in pet foods, as even named ingredients such as “Chicken By-products” are not handled with the same safety or quality standards as USDA inspected and passed meats and organs.
Final Thoughts: It’s true, in its recent update the FDA says that between Jan. 1, 2014 and Nov. 30, 2018, it’s received reports of 325 dogs and 10 cats diagnosed with DCM. Most were eating grain free kibble, but some were on kibble with grains, vegan diets, and some homemade diets. The figures include 74 dogs and two cats that have died. At the same time,as the FDA notes, diet-associated reports of DCM have affected a very small proportion of the estimated 77 million pet dogs in the country. “Tens of millions of dogs have been eating dog food without developing DCM” and “Based on the data collected and analyzed thus far, the agency believes that the potential association between diet and DCM is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors,” the FDA said in the update on its investigation.
Many people know that catnip can create a euphoric and playful feelings in many cats, but other cats don’t seem to be affected. There are actually several other plants that could create this same effect, especially one called silver vine, which is in the kiwi family. Interestingly, a recent study shows that more cats reacted to silver vine than to catnip, and moreover, almost 75 percent of the catnip non-responders responded to silver vine.
If your cat hasn’t enjoyed catnip, or even if he loves catnip, you should really give silver vine a try. Our cat Otis likes catnip OK, and mostly wants to lick it, but Silver vine really holds his interest, and even stimulates him to play with soft toys on his own when it’s applied to them (which is unusual for him, as he prefers interactive play). He also loves rubbing his face on the ends of the sticks when we hold them for him, and many cats like to chew on them, perhaps adding a dental health benefit. The effects for Otis seem strongest when he doesn’t smell it every day. Every few days we pull out the sticks or a silver vine sprinkled toy and it’s all new again. We’ve brought in products from From The Field including a locally made silver vine/catnip blend in small “dime bags” to try, and in 1oz containers for those that want more.
We also have a multi-pack of sticks from the same Washington company, nested in dried silver vine leaf, and a also cloud shaped soft toy that comes with a little tin of finely ground silver vine from Dezi Roo that you can sprinkle onto it and other toys. Happy playtime, kitties! They also have a good article about Why Silver Vine Is Better Than Catnip.
Offering cats novel objects and smells are key to keeping them happy and behaviorally healthy. Experiment with Silver Vine to see if it can add some spice to their lives!
We know you know about Kongs (don’t you wish you’d invented them?) but we’d like to remind you that when your house is full of busy activities, and you have an irregular schedule and visitors, it can cause anxiety for the pets in the home. For dogs, one great calming activity can be working on extracting delicious foods from a Kong, and it has the added benefit of keeping them busy and therefore not underfoot. Chewing is also work, so Kongs can help on days when you just don’t have time to really run the dogs around as much as you’d like.
Kongs are one of the safest chews to give a dog, as they are made from natural rubber, are too large to swallow and are a good size to hold onto with their paws. Most people only think of smearing a bit of peanut butter inside, but you can be creative with other whole food Kong fillings to make them last longer and be even more appealing. (We don’t love the ingredients in the commercial fillings). Moist foods like plain yogurt, cooked sweet potato, a little cultured cottage cheese, banana, unsweetened applesauce, canned dog food, Green Juju or other finely minced greens/veggies, part of her regular serving of kibble can be stuffed into the Kong and frozen to make them last much longer ((you can soften it first in either water, fermented raw goat’s milk, or bone broth).
– Pick out a Kong that’s big enough for your dog’s tongue to reach inside and lick out the fillings.
– If you have a puppy, pick out a bigger one knowing they will grow into it but don’t load it all the way up with a full big Kong’s worth of food. It might be too much food. Remember that food can stimulate the need to poop for your puppy, so if you feed with a Kong in a crate, check on them before too long to take them out for a potty.
– For hard-chewing dogs, the black colored Kongs are even stronger than the red color.
The Feral Cat catio tour in Portland has sold out again this year! What’s a catio? It’s an enclosed outdoor space for kitties that keeps them safe from harm’s way and protects much of the wildlife that is harmed by outdoor cats every year. Between 2-4 billion birds a and 7 -20 billion small mammals are killed by cats in the U.S. alone. The introduction of cats has caused the extinction of at least 33 endemic species on islands throughout the world.
We of course adore our cats here in the U.S. and want them to be happy. I personally deeply respect their natural behaviors, and Mike and I try to meet Otis’ needs for interactive prey/predator simulation via interactive play every day. When we first adopted him at 10 years old, we were dedicated to turning him from an outdoor cat to an indoor cat – he had already been hit by a car in his lifetime, disappearing for a few days before showing up on the lawn and needing $5,000 in emergency surgery. He’s a fancy looking Himalayan with a laid back social nature, so he was stolen twice from his previous owner, and luckily recovered (one time by a friendly uniformed officer that was willing to mediate).When we met him he lived right near Green Dog, and started coming in our back door during the daytime and spending time socializing with all of us and our customers. Unfortunately, when he was outside, he was showing us how little he had learned about car safety by laying down for a bath right in the crosswalk on our busy street, or sprawling in the middle of a parking space along the side of the building. When he’d spot someone he wanted to visit, he’d just trot right through traffic to get to them. We felt like we had to save him from inevitable trouble with cars and luckily his owner was worried too and thrilled we wanted to take him.
We committed ourselves to daily environmental enrichment for him (regular introduction of piles of paper to play in, boxes with holes of different sizes, bags, etc rotated through his play area). Being food motivated, he also enjoyed learning tricks for treats (he learned about 16 of them over time). The most important part of the puzzle was daily interactive play. Using toys to simulate the movement of prey animals that he could chase and hunt was key to keeping him satisfied as an indoor cat. The best interactive toy remains the “Da Bird” toy with its various attachments (sparkle, mouse and of course the spinning flying feathers). For really energetic catches, we’d give him a treat. For his very best most spectacular catch of the evening, we ran upstairs and gave him a 3/4″ piece of bony meaty raw chicken neck, which allowed him to “hunt”, “catch” and “eat a bird” in a a fairly awesome simulated way. It was truly satisfying to him. It also supercharged our play sessions, making him ultra-motivated to play every night and to run harder and faster. He knew that there was something in it for him! What we haven’t done for him yet but we aspire to is to build him some sort of catio.
A catio is a structure (Cat Patio) that allows cats to be outdoors yet remain enclosed. It can be the simple modification of an existing porch by adding screening or mesh, it can be a structure built off of a window, or a tunnel system that they can travel through above the ground. It gives them the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors, minus the risk. Even a small enclosure attached to a window can bring an indoor cat a lot of pleasure.
Can you imagine letting your dog out the door and into the city in the morning and saying “Have a good day! See you tonight! Hope you don’t get into trouble out there”? I can’t tell you how many stories we hear regularly in the store about losing their cats to coyotes, cars, infections due to fights, etc. Check out different catio designs online – you might be inspired!
In spring and summer, especially on the West Coast (and most especially in California), be on the lookout for foxtails and be aware of their tremendous potential to seriously harm your pet. Dogs do encounter them in Oregon, and the problem will likely increase as weather patterns are shifting. Foxtails are a kind of grass seed – many grass seeds have a similar look, but not all are as harmful as some. Dogs seem to be particularly at risk for complications from interacting with foxtails. The reason that some species are so dangerous is that they can quickly make their way into your dog’s body through literally any orifice, including the nose, eyes, ears and mouth, and they can also puncture the skin. Between the toes is a very common place for a foxtail to embed itself. The trouble is, the way the foxtail is designed, When it matures the foxtail head breaks apart into individual little barbs that are designed to both catch onto an animal’s coat and hitch a ride to a new location, and then allows it to burrow itself into the soil. If you touch any grass seed, it will be easy to stroke it from bottom to top, but from top to bottom you’ll feel a rough resistance. It manages to travel, and can only travel forward, not backwards. Once inside your dog’s body, foxtails can move relentlessly forward through the tissue and through the body. They can create abscesses, damage tissue, and cause an infection known as grass awn disease. They can migrate from inside your dog’s nose to its brain. They can dig through skin or be inhaled into — and then perforate — a lung. They can even slip into the crevices of a penis or vulva. They’re serious business.
Things to watch for if your dog has been running through dry grasses:
I just saw a little rant online from some well-intentioned woman begging dog owners to shave their poor dogs in the summer, as she felt so bad for them. I thought it might be helpful to address that question here.
Actually, shaving some breeds of dogs can actually make them quite a bit hotter.
Shaving some breeds can destroy their coat which may never grow back in correctly. More importantly, double-coated breeds are designed to shed their undercoat and leave the guard hairs (top coat) intact, which then acts to shield the dog from solar rays, reflecting them away.
When you shave the dog, it removes the protective layer exposing them to greater risk of sunburn, skin cancer, and especially heat stroke. The reason? Removing the top coat causes the fluffy base layer (the hot one that they usually shed in the summer) to grow back quickly, covering them with a thick hot layer of insulating fur. You’d be cursing them to wear their winter sweater in the heat instead of their sun shield! The other bummer about exposing the woolly undercoat is that it becomes a magnet for foxtails, burrs and dirt – the slipperier outer coat is more resistant to these things.
The 4th of July is a bad time for many pets around the country, but in places like Portland where people seem to be very big fans of fireworks and the larger illegal fireworks are so easy to get, it’s often a complete nightmare for people whose pets are terrified of the noise. Some people choose to go camping in remote areas with their dogs, and one customer routinely gets in the car with her dog on the 4th and just drives and drives for hours, around and around the city’s highways to avoid the stress of the night. Here are a few tips we hope can help if you’re staying at home this 4th of July.
So there’s a lot of information bouncing around the internet recently about grain-free foods contributing to heart disease in dogs. Like most things on the internet, much of this information is good, yet some downright irritating with its bad advice and misinterpretation of the facts. I thought I’d chime in and try to distill it for anyone that it’s interested. Truthfully, all kibble feeders should be interested. Please remember, I’m not bashing kibble per se, but those that feed it should be aware of its shortfalls. The good news is that its very easy and not expensive to provide excellent protection against these shortfalls when feeding a dry kibble diet!
So here’s the thing with this recent issue:
U.C. Davis reported an increase in heart disease (specifically dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM) in dogs eating grain free kibble, and when tested, they have low taurine levels. Some breeds of dogs (like boxers, dobermans, cavaliers, etc) have genetic predispositions to cardiomyopathy (a serious weakening of the heart muscle making it harder to pump blood through the body), but there’s a recent increase in cardiomyopathy in other breeds as well, linked to Taurine deficiency. Golden Retrievers may be especially vulnerable to this. The amazing news is that recent research is showing that when you improve their taurine levels through nutrition, they rapidly and significantly improve their heart function (even with other heart problems like murmurs and arrhythmias) Yay! Here’s what we do know: This definitely points to a nutritional problem with their diets.
Remember as you read other articles: Some dogs showing low taurine levels were eating food with grains. Some dogs with DCM didn’t have low taurine levels. There hasn’t been a formal study yet, this is still just an FDA investigation into reports of a handful of dogs that aren’t considered genetically predisposed to DCM presenting with the disease. More here
The good thing about this event is that FDA and the vets that are collaborating with them are suggesting that there may be a strong correlation between diet and Taurine deficiency. We concur!
We’re coming up on Earth Day this month, and as a Green store, this day is a major holiday for us. I wanted to post something inspirational here on this blog to mark the occasion. I want this day to be a day of celebration, as well as a call for advocacy and action, but it’s hard these days to be able to create enough hope in our hearts to actually celebrate, or to act. I want to suggest something that might help to restore your ability to hope and give you the energy to affect change, even if it is small.
These are tough times for the environment, to be sure. It can be extraordinarily overwhelming to know that massive changes are afoot; knowing that both polar ice caps are breaking apart and coastlines are becoming inundated, hearing the news that every 26 minutes an elephant is poached, that right whales haven’t reproduced this year successfully, that monarchs are disappearing rapidly due to weed killing pesticides, or that we’ve just lost our last male northern white rhino. In this country we live in, in these political times makes all this sort of news even more dire, as our leader has chosen for the heads of all of his major departments people who have specifically been committed to eliminating environmental protections. These problems all seem so unapproachable and so overwhelming, it starts to hurt our souls, and certainly can seem like nothing we do could possibly influence anything. But of course, as damage is done by the cumulative actions of many, damage may also be slowed, and policies changed. But even I, who thinks of these issues daily, who started a nonprofit conservation organization for orangutans and helped to run it for 10 years, then teamed up with my husband to start a business that attempts to educate and support positive change in the lifestyles of our customers and in our industry, these feelings of desperation send me into a paralyzing lethargy.
As I ponder how to speak to this issue, I realize that the one thing that saves my spirit every time is when I seek out adventures that bring me to places of natural beauty, visiting ecosystems that are fairly intact, and observing wildlife in ways that don’t negatively impact them. Even better is when my presence does something positive in any way to benefit the wildlife that I’m seeing. This restores my spirit in a way that nothing else can. It makes me happy, peaceful, and most importantly inspired anew to do something, anything, to make a difference. I’m here to try and encourage you to do the same, in big or small ways. We all play around in our heads with where we might like to go on our next vacation. What if you made plans not just to see an area of natural beauty, but to seek out a trip where your money not only gives you access to neat experiences or beautiful places, but actually helps to benefit the conservation of that place?
I’d like to share some stories of my most recent adventure, filled with bucket list activities that turned out to be more magical than I ever thought they’d be. It was an incredible gift that I gave myself, and the money I spent helped to support some amazing efforts to conserve what I now think of as a magical place.
In September of 2016, I stumbled on a tiny paragraph in the PCC catalog describing a trip to Baja Mexico where I might swim with whale sharks, help with a sea turtle banding/tracking project, and visit the friendly gray whales in their calving grounds. I swooned. These were several things I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager. The trip was put together by two cooperating organizations – SEE Turtles, and RED Travel Mexico. Both of these organizations work to bring tourists to areas of conservation interest and the money they spend supports the conservation projects on the ground. I started saving my money right away. Last summer on my 49th birthday I decided I would like to go on this trip in 2018 to celebrate my upcoming 50th. It was more amazing than I could have imagined.
Our home base was La Paz (a very pretty spot on the ocean and one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen) on the Sea of Cortez. We had a wonderful guide for the whole week that made sure everything went smoothly and educated us about the history of the places we visited, taught us about the plants, animals and geology of the places we visited, and introduced us to local people who had previously been fishermen who had taken it upon themselves to start up grassroots protection efforts to help protect their fisheries, and therefore their livelihood.
On the first day we were supposed to visit with whale sharks, but the ocean was very choppy – lucky us, we were then able to visit a National Biosphere Reserve (Rancho Ecologico Sol de Mayo), where a short hike through the desert where we learned about some of the threatened and endangered species of plants that were protected in this reserve suddenly ends in a stunning fresh water springs with a gorgeous waterfall, and we took a fabulous swim.
The next day the sea was calmer, and we were able to swim with whale sharks – a lifelong dream! I do have to say it was very different than I imagined – you see those photos and it seems like you’d get to hang out and watch them, but I’ll tell you – whale sharks are on the move, by design. The visibility is poor in these waters due to high concentrations of plankton, which is a whale shark’s food. To eat, they swim along at a steady pace with their big mouths wide open, gathering the bounty. You really have to swim your legs off to try and keep up with them and get just a few minutes to see them before they quickly outpace you. It was stupendous though to see them so close, to travel alongside them, and be in the presence of such a beautiful and enormous creature. Their spots seem illuminated from within. The best thing though was that organization we traveled with was responsible for completely revamping the whale shark tourist trade to be more responsible and to better care for the needs and safety of the whale sharks themselves. Apparently, just about everywhere else in the world that you can go see whale sharks, it’s a terrible circus. Whale sharks are crowded and stressed by boats and people, often injured by boat propellers. I would have been horrified to be a part of anything like that. RED Travel changed everything. Now, only a certain number of boats are allowed in these waters at a time, and the rest have to wait their turn. All boats must be licensed and display a flag, they must have a certified guide, and tourists pay a small fee that supports the industry and wear wrist bands as proof of payment – at one point a patrol boat came along and checked that all was in order. If another boat is near a shark, your boat may not approach that area. We only had 9 tourists in our group, and only half of us went into the water at a time. Our guide went first and signaled to us when it was time to slip in (not jump) into the water. Whale sharks don’t see well and as long as you give them room, I’m not sure that they really are very aware at all of their observers. I’ll never forget it.
Afterwards, we stopped for lunch on a little mangrove covered island, and got to know our boat captain and hear his fabulous story. He is a fisherman who fishes mainly for a species of clam that reaches sizes of over a foot long, but which had become dangerously over-fished and had almost disappeared. He slowly convinced other fishermen in the area to create a coalition to restore this clam population. They made an agreement to leave the smaller clams in place so they could actually grow large enough to reproduce. They only harvested clams after they were a certain size, and set limits for how many each could remove at a time. They each also volunteer their own time for shifts to monitor this area in their own small boats to ensure the rules were being followed, and this population is once again flourishing. This was no small feat! RED travel finds projects like these and supports and strengthens them, and also hires these people as boat captains for the tourists. This helps to supplement their income while also giving them another way to maintain their presence in the area watching out for their clams. ((Bonus for us: he also made us a fabulous ceviche for our lunch!)
This is the focus of this great organization. Many economic development activities simply aimed at income generation are likely to have negative impacts on biodiversity, unless the values of the biodiversity and related ecosystem services are factored in. If protecting habitat and the species that live there can create economic advantages for the people that live there, these areas will be well protected in order to protect this economic value. For example: Protecting mangroves creates habitat for thousands of animals, but most importantly, they are the nurseries for many species of fish. When the mangroves are protected, the fisheries can remain strong. When the residents are educated about the important role mangroves play in ensuring a healthy fishery, they are also shown the economic value of protecting it. When tourists come to see mangroves, they provide added income to residents. The tourists are given the opportunity to see these amazing places and learn about these relationships between healthy habitats and benefit to humans, they may carry this knowledge with them and see the world through this new lens. The money they bring to the area stimulates the economy thereby ensuring the area remains protected to be able to host more tourists.
On another day we visited Isla Espiritu Santo, an UNESCO world heritage site and Biosphere Reserve. It’s difficult to describe its beauty (that completely secluded beach at the top of this post is where we had lunch). This massive island was a geological wonder to me – every corner we turned looked different, geologically speaking. As a birder, traveling by a big Magnificent Frigate bird rookery and seeing the tiny fluffy white chicks through my binoculars while Blue Footed Boobies and other seabirds flew overhead was fantastic. As a treat we stopped and snorkeled near a colony of sea lions. People have been snorkeling here for more than 30 years, and the youngsters are quite happy to entertain themselves by swimming by and investigating the tourists (who are cordoned off from much of the rookery). It was amazing for me, as I once worked with captive sea lions, so it was a gift to watch them from underwater in their natural element – they are incredibly graceful and beautiful in the water.
We traveled across to the other coast of Baja to Isla Magdalena. The bay is a major calving ground for Gray whales. There were so many whales everywhere in this bay! We stayed in an isolated tent camp on the desert island with no one else for miles around.
It was truly magical. The bright stars filled the sky from horizon to horizon. While I was walking at night in complete darkness close to the shore, I suddenly heard a whale spout and then deeply inhale, so very close to me. What chills that gave me! Coyotes who were passing through the tent grounds before dawn stopped and sang their crazy group song, right outside of my tent. We went out in the boat at night, in complete darkness, with the stars sparkling overhead and the water of our wake sparkling with bio-luminescence. We had breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, our 360 degree view unimpeded by buildings or trees.
Showing us the details of all the measurements and other observations we’d record the next day
Our primary activity at the camp besides whale watching was to participate in their Sea Turtle research. The man running our data collection project had been a fisherman who caught sea turtles and sold their meat like any other “fish”. When he encountered this project and the people at RED, he began to see turtles in a whole new light, growing to admire and respect them. He and several other local men are now employed by the project coordinating the data collection events, though funding isn’t as available to do as much data collection when tourists are not present. The more often tourists visit the camp, the more often the project can set up the nets, the more often data can be collected, and the more income they have. The turtles are tagged and the data they take sheds light on growth rates and health of the population (a few that we caught were recaptures, so they will be able to compare their data with the last time they were measured and weighed. The data is then shared with other organizations, and other projects that encounter these tagged turtles have valuable information on their movement patterns, etc. This project also regularly invites other fishermen from the area to observe data collection, as some have described a shift in perception when they see the importance of these animals through the eyes of the people studying them and the reverence that tourists have for the animals they’re interacting with. Now they make it a point to invite them when they can, and some ultimately become involved with the project themselves. It was a real privilege for us to see these beautiful animals up close, to be sure.
The 40 foot long mother, Lucrecia, and our Hugo, our fabulous guide
But Oh, the whales! Visiting the friendly gray whales of Magdalena Bay was truly the most meaningful part of the trip for me, and was one of the most special wildlife encounters I’ve had in my life. In Magdalena Bay there’s a very special situation: Starting in October gray whales leave the Arctic and travel down the coastline, arriving by late December or early January to their calving grounds in the warm waters of this protected area – the longest migration of any mammal. The females don’t feed much during this time in the bay- most of their activity centers around nursing and teaching the calves valuable survival skills in safe surroundings, so they have a fair amount of leisure time. They seem to really enjoy occasionally visiting with people who are on the little boats and the whales are the ones who choose to do it. I’ve always been strongly opposed to the idea of any human trying to get close and interact with wildlife as it carries such a risk, not just for the people involved, but more importantly for the animals, killed for behaving like the wild animals that they are. Habituation all too often leads to conflict and the wildlife always loses. Except here, in this very unique situation. It makes sense, actually. The whales are incredibly intelligent, more than we humans understand I believe. They’re enormous (40ft long) and in charge of this situation. Gray whales don’t generally engage in this behavior any other time except in this place (though occasionally our resident population of gray whales off the coast of Oregon will approach a boat and take a closer look at who’s visiting), which also makes sense. When you’re a gray whale, everywhere else there’s pressure to survive: you must feed intensely to maintain energy for the migration, especially in the intense cold of the Arctic. Orcas try to hunt your babies. There are oil rigs, fishing vessels and massive Swordfish gill nets to avoid. You have to get somewhere far far away and you can only travel at 5 miles an hour. But in Baja in the warm waters of this protected bay it’s all vacation time for them, and also have plenty of time to teach their babies basic skills they’ll need on their migration. Just like with whale sharks, there are now strict rules surrounding tourism in these waters. The whales certainly don’t approach every boat. The female and baby that approached ours traveled alongside us for about a half hour first. I hear that if they approach a boat and no one interacts with them they leave. This mother (Lucrecia) even boosted her calf (Lunar) up a bit to reach us better, so we could reach him! Our guide had told us, “We won’t follow or approach them, but if a whale reaches up to you, you may go ahead and touch it”. His nose was squishy and rubbery and I cried. We all got chances to visit with him. We also saw some behaviors that genuinely looked like training exercises (ask me in the store – I’ll glad you tell you stories about the amazing things we saw them do) and we even watched a female nurse her baby. It was transcendent. Our guide said, “This bay used to be a place of carnage for these whales. Throughout history we have treated whales horrifically, and still they forgive us.” I feel so grateful that our perception as humans towards the wildlife has changed in this beautiful, special, sacred place, and that we now honor the animals that come to Magdalena Bay and who rely on it as a sanctuary. I’m grateful that there are ways for tourists to honor and support the people who live there and who value the environmental resources that they have, so that the habitat is worth more when it’s intact than when it is destroyed. I hold that concept dear, and hope that others can visit places all over the world like this, to learn about the magic and beauty and importance of nature, and more importantly, to make sure that their activities don’t harm the species they go there to see. And it’s even better if their presence results in the economic support of efforts to protect that area for others.
Luckily, we can learn about and have magical moments experiencing the wild places close to home, often for free.
There are a myriad of organizations here and all over the world that seek to help visitors do this. Having a guide really enriches the whole experience of exploring a new place – you wouldn’t imagine how many things you otherwise might miss that someone who knows the habitat can teach you. You’ll come to appreciate the complexity and inter-connectedness of all of the plants and animals that share that beautiful place. If you have kids, it’s critical in this day and age to teach them about the people and wildlife of the region they’re visiting, and of the environment we all share. Next time you want to get outdoors on the weekend, check out some of the local resources below. Many guided experiences are free, but perhaps you’ll make a small donation to the organization that’s hosting you, to support their work. Next time you want to take a bigger vacation, Google words like “conservation ecotours”, or “volunteering in Costa Rica”, for example. You never know what magical experiences you’ll find! Here are just a few:
SEE Turtles (the Baja trip I took even allowed kids as young as 7 to participate)
RED Travel Mexico – there are day trips and multi day experiences, including each of the activities I described above. They’ll even set up a tent camp for small to large groups.
Friends Of The Gorge outings – With 100+ guided outings a year to choose from, there is something for everyone! Whether it be wildflower walks, kayak trips, geology tours, or bike rides they’ve made it easy for you to enjoy unique outings in all areas of the Columbia Gorge. Each outing has an educational theme and is led by knowledgeable volunteer hike leaders and shepherds. Many are free.
Audubon Society – “On short hikes and easy walks, we’ll focus our attention on trees, wildflowers, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies and other insects, and geology. And as always, we’ll be on the lookout for birds and other wildlife!”
They offer Eco trips all over Oregon, Alaska, Olympic Peninsula, New Mexico, etc, as well as spring summer and winter break camps for K-12
Green Life volunteers – solar power project, parrot rehab on the Osa Peninsula (an amazing place), turtle projects, and even dog rescue!
You might be glad to know that we’ve uncovered some drop off sites for recycling soft plastic in our area! (baggies, produce bags, bread bags, toilet paper wrap, etc). You might remember that China stopped accepting mixed plastics due to contamination issues, and just like that, our ability to recycle many kinds of plastic dried up overnight. (More about that here). We recently stumbled on a site that helps you find convenient drop-off locations for soft plastics in the area, and then did some more digging to make sure it was true. We were skeptical, as we’d heard recent stories on NPR about what a backlog Portland still has of recycled material with no buyers, and that they might have to landfill a lot of the curbside plastic they’ve collected. Turns out, there are processing capabilities for film in the U.S. by companies that have always bought and continue to buy retailer films (and also those recycled by customers). The type of materials that are backlogged in Portland had always been shipped to China and that’s why there is such urgency to find a solution for those now that that market has dried up. Not all plastic is the same to a market or processor— much of the material that China was taking was in mixed bales of several types of harder plastic (like clamshells and plastic lids). There are few markets for that in the U.S., thus the backlog. However, segregated materials like film, PET bottles and HDPE bottles/containers, because they each are a single resin and collected separately, are easier to market here in the US. This is great news! So, here’s a link for where you can find a drop off spot in your area! (the closest one to the store is Safeway on NE Fremont St.) Don’t miss the link describing examples of the type of plastic you can bring to recycle. Make sure it’s clean and dry, and if you’re unsure of whether you can recycle it, leave it out. We don’t want to lose this recycling opportunity due to contamination.