Monday, December 3, 2012

Wild Horses Update!

I can't believe it's been a month already since publication day! The best thing about that, I guess, was the day the box arrived from Houghton Mifflin, and there they were, real books! It's so satisfying to see an idea finally become real. But since then, lots of very cool things have happened. Here are a few:

Wild Horse Scientists has received starred reviews from esteemed professional journals Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and School Library Journal. The Horn Book will also be publishing a lovely review in their next issue, and The National Science Teachers Association named Wild Horse Scientists to their "Outstanding Science Trade Books published in 2012 for Students K-12!"

Also, I did my first two book signings, both of them at a local tack shop (called A Bit More Tack) belonging to the very lovely Abby Little. The books sold out quickly and Abby had to reorder. Yay! Since I think this may have been the first time she's hosted a book signing amid the riding helmets and saddle pads and other horsey items in her shop, no one really knew what to expect. It was great fun meeting people and talking about how the book came to be. As much as I treasure professional kudos in the form of great reviews and "Best Of" lists, hearing from real readers how much they're enjoying the book—a science book, among horse people!—has been really wonderful. And everyone is wowed by the more than 100 color photos in the book. Even though credit for those goes to my talented photographers, I feel as if I practically willed every one of them onto the page! Well, it seemed that way at the time, as deadlines loomed. Here's a pic from the book signing:

Most of the reader reviews I've gotten so far have been from adults, and I'm delighted that they find the story interesting and even suspenseful in places. I really wanted it to be a book for everyone who loves horses, science, and the natural environment, in whatever order those interests exist! But I'm especially looking forward to hearing from some young readers, too. I'd welcome comments to this space any time!

Another friend passed along a great article from the current (November 12, 2012) issue of High Country News, which calls itself a magazine "for people who care about the West." The cover story is called "Nowhere to Run" (by Dave Philipps), and it's about the gathering crisis of wild horse population control in the American West. Although my book focuses primarily on the wild horses of Assateague Island, Maryland, the quest to find a humane and effective method to limit wild horse numbers and thus ensure their survival actually had its beginning in the West. This article is
an excellent roundup (no pun intended) of the very difficult and contentious issues involved in sorting out the past, present, and future of wild mustangs. Jay Kirkpatrick, whose work to develop and test the wild horse contraceptive PZP is the story at the heart of my book, is quoted in the article, along with other voices on all sides of the issue. And there are some stunning photos, too. The magazine is by subscription only, so I can't link to the article here, but it's well worth looking for if you're interested in the plight of America's mustangs.

Here's a link that will take you to further information and photos about these horses. It's the blog of T.J. Holmes, who is also featured in the High Country News article. Holmes calls herself the "horse paparazzi," since she's been somewhat obsessed, for years, with the mustangs of the BLM's Spring Basin Wild Horse Management Area in southwestern Colorado. She's spent hours observing and photographing the horses in this one dusty corner of America, but that's not all. She's also one of a small army of volunteers—all of them expert observers and advocates of wild mustangs—who have been trained by Jay Kirkpatrick to safely and effectively carry out the labor-intensive darting of wild mares with PZP. Volunteers are ordinary citizens who travel to Kirkpatrick's lab in Billings, Montana for an intensive 3-day PZP training course. Now these volunteers account for about 16 percent of PZP applications among the Western herds—and the effort still falls short of the need.

But slowly, and not always surely, wild horse contraception is becoming accepted as the best available solution to the problem of wild horse overpopulation. For an inside look at the wild horses of the perhaps aptly named Disappointment Valley, check out Holmes' blog. And here's a shot of a couple of mustangs from Colorado's Little Book Cliffs wild horse range. These guys, with their bright pinto coloring, look quite a bit like many of the wild horses of Assateague Island. But controlling their population numbers is a more daunting task than the well-established contraceptive program that keeps the Assateague Island herd in check. Their future is precarious.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wild Horse Scientists is published!

Today is a big day! For one thing, we're electing a President here in America (if you haven't yet voted and you're registered, please make sure to get to the polls today!). And for another thing, today is publication day for Wild Horse Scientists! I'm thrilled that this story is finally going out into the world, and hope you'll check it out. For more on my book and the wonderful Scientists in the Field series from Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, click here!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Witches and Goblins, Wild Horses and Climate Change

About this time last year we lay in the dark, listening to the violent cracking of still-leafy tree branches outside our windows. A weirdly out-of-season snow-and-ice storm was turning Halloween into a broken, droopy winter wonderland. This year, it looks as if folks around here will have to bring their pumpkins and outdoor goblins inside, for fear they might become flying missiles when the hurricane dubbed “Frankenstorm” (a.k.a. Sandy) makes landfall somewhere along the New Jersey coast late tomorrow night. Already the outer bands of this gigantic storm that can’t quite decide if it’s a tropical cyclone or a winter nor’easter—because apparently it’s setting up to be both—have been buffeting the outer banks of North Carolina and moving in on Virginia and points north.

As I always do, I think of the wild creatures with no ability to board up windows and buy electric generators. It looks as if this time, the worst will pass to the north of Assateague Island, and the horses there will survive this storm as they have so many others. I’ll be thinking of them, and all the animals and people impacted by this historic weather event.

It does make me wonder, though. Is this crazy weather we’ve been having in recent years  a harbinger of global climate change? And how might man-made climate change affect both humans and the animals who share our planet in the future? So I was glad to find a study, published late last year, that addresses that very question. An international group of scientists collaborated in an effort to answer a nagging question: What caused the mysterious disappearance of many large mammals in North America some 10,000 years ago? Was it climate change, or human activity? (You can read a lot more about these mysterious extinctions in Wild Horse Scientists soon. November 6!)

Using genetic, archeological, and climatic data together to figure out what happened to Ice-Age mammals including the wild horse, these scientists concluded that the answer to the question, humans vs. climate change, is. . . both.

You can read more about the study here. Bottom line? The researchers concluded that there was likely no single cause for extinctions of the six large herbivores studied—the wooly rhinoceros, wooly mammoth, reindeer, bison, musk ox, and wild horse. Instead, says the study, “the relative impacts of climate change and human encroachment on species extinctions really depend on which species we’re looking at.”

During the entire Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted from about 2 million to 12,000 years ago, North America experienced many climatic ups and downs, and these mammals that had evolved during colder periods did suffer population losses during the warm intervals. But they always managed to find places where the climate was just right for them and survive, even in reduced numbers. When cooling came again, their numbers rebounded. But then, after the peak of the last ice age around 20,000 years ago, something changed.

What was that something?


Our ancestors moved into the same places where the large Ice Age mammals had once thrived; they developed agricuture and hunting, and in so doing changed the landscape so dramatically that these animals were cut off from what they needed to survive. It’s an ancient drama being replayed today in passionate controversies over the place of wild horses in the remaining open lands of our American West.

One faction says that horses are not native to North America, but rather are an exotic, invasive species that can claim no natural rights to protection, while other voices argue just as forcefully that the horse evolved here in North America and nowhere else on earth. To them, wild horses have a right to exist on the lands where they evolved. Well, this and other studies lend compelling, scientific support to the second argument. Both fossil evidence and sophisticated genetic analysis support the claim that native horses driven from North America by climate change and human encroachment 10,000 years ago are biologically identical to the so-called “feral” horses we call wild today.

Says Beth Shapiro, biology professor at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors, “There are many more humans today, and we have changed and are continuing to change the planet in even more important ways.”  What will be the fate of populations threatened by climate change and habitat alteration happening in our time? Maybe this truly awesome storm—the Halloween Frankenstorm of 2012— will prompt more of us to ponder this question.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Taking Time

Exactly three weeks from  tomorrow, Wild Horse Scientists will finally go out into the world! I’m very excited; this book has been a long time in the making, as I’ll explain below. But first, another bit of good news: Wild Horse Scientists has received a starred review from the venerable Kirkus Reviews! One of my favorite lines from the review (you can find the full text here):

Underlying these particular stories are important concepts, lucidly conveyed: Scientists work together to solve problems, solutions can be a long time coming and sometimes approaches fail.

This is so true, and the long gestation period that finally gave birth to Wild Horse Scientists proves it can be as true of writing as it is of science.

I first started thinking seriously of writing a book about the wild horses of Assateague Island in 1995, but the seeds of my interest go back even further, to a horse-obsessed and book-loving childhood. You could trace it to my reading of two beloved children’s novels by Marguerite Henry: Misty of Chincoteague and Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West. Both are fictionalized versions of real events—the first involving the wild horses of Assateague and their traditional swim and “pony penning,” and the second a story based on the life and work of Velma Bronn Johnston, later known as Wild Horse Annie, who almost single-handedly created the first real legislation protecting wild horses in America.

But it wasn’t until I happened to read an article in the July 23, 1995 issue of the Baltimore Sun Magazine that I decided to research and write a book. 

By this time, both Ron Keiper and Jay Kirkpatrick, two of the scientists I write about in my book, had separately been studying and working with these wild horses for more than 20 years, and Allison Turner, National Park Service biological technician and wild horse specialist, had already begun her work on the island, too.

If you asked them today, they’d tell you they never expected this wild horse project to continue for so many years when they started. For biologist Jay Kirkpatrick, a problem he first tackled as a young researcher in 1971 has turned into a lifelong quest that still continues in 2012.

So back in 1998, after much enjoyable research that included a visit to Assateague, Chincoteague, and the annual pony penning and auction, I wrote a long proposal for a very different book, for an adult audience. It never sold. But I kept on collecting articles, books, and photos in my “Chincoteague pony” folder, not knowing if I’d ever use them. By 2009, when I started thinking about another sort of book, Google had made it simple for me to locate and approach both Dr. Keiper and Dr.Kirkpatrick. I was thrilled to meet them after all those years. Better yet, they were both enthusiastic about working with me on this project! Everything came together after that, when my wonderful editors at Houghton Mifflin Books for Children said they shared our enthusiasm.

Nowadays everything seems to move so fast. A million fascinating things vie for our attention every waking minute, and often we find ourselves posting “status updates” from our phones to social media sites even before the experience we’re posting about has finished happening.

But it turns out that some things just can’t be rushed. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Finding Joy

Wild Horse Scientists will be released five weeks from today! I'm very excited about this, and will soon have a bit of good news to share about the book. Keep watching this space! In the meantime, I came across an article about a study published a couple of years ago in the journal Animal Behavior that I wanted to share. The study suggested that some horses never forget the humans who have treated them well, even after a separation of months or years. This bond with humans is believed to be an extension of horse behavior in the wild—social relationships described in Wild Horse Scientists, too. Wild horses maintain long-term bonds with members of their family group, but they also interact temporarily with members of other groups when forming herds.

"Equid relationships," say the study's authors, "are long-lasting and, in some cases, lifelong." You can read more about it here.

Lifelong bonds. I've been thinking about this a lot today, because my heart is kind of breaking over the loss of one of those bonds in my own life.You may have seen his photo, along with his best friend, Finn, if you've visited my website, or my last blog post. Asa's the guy on the right.

I write about horses and other animals because I love them, and I've never loved any animal more than Asa, a ridgeless Rhodesian Ridgeback who joined our family 12 years ago this summer, when he was a wrinkly puppy with long ears, no bigger than the Jack Russell terrier who was then the other dog in the house. Asa grew quickly to over 100 pounds, but he never lost his puppy sweetness. He was beautiful and gentle and loved everyone, but what I will always remember the most about him is that he was a very happy dog. He could be silly, such as this time when he decided to fit his very big body into his "brother's" very small bed:

Or he could be quiet and comforting, happy just to stretch his big body out next to me on the couch and lay his broad, soft head on my lap. And even as he got older and developed some physical issues that made it harder for him to run and prance as he'd always done, he never let it bother him much. He was still a happy dog. Until the very end, when he suddenly became very sick, he loved every day of his life, no matter what. He found joy in the simple, doggy things he did, which is the most important attribute, to me, of the scientists I wrote about in Wild Horse Scientists. They, too, love what they do, so that even hard work must seem, at least some of the time, like play. Because I wish that for everyone, including myself, today I dedicate this page to the memory of Asa. I'm so very sad that he's not lying here on the ottoman in my office where he belongs, but I found a quote, attributed to both Dr. Seuss and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I don't know to whom the words belong for sure. But this is what I will tell myself when I think of my lovely, happy dog: 

Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.

June 17, 2000—September 30, 2012 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Elephants Evolving

I’m drawn to large, inscrutable animals, which may explain Asa and Finn, my two Rhodesian ridgeback pals who, together, outweigh me by close to a hundred pounds. It must also account for my lifelong passion for horses. It’s not just their size, grace, and power, but that alien intelligence lurking in their large eyes and huge, faintly prehistoric-looking heads that I can't resist. Still, for sheer size, intelligence, and prehistoric inscrutability (if not grace), it’s hard to beat the elephant. I’ve never ridden one, but I do admire them. Having grown up in Sarasota, Florida when it was a circus town, I saw them from time to time. My first horseback riding lessons took place just across the road from the Ringling Brothers circus winter quarters, and resident members of the elephant menagerie sometimes observed these lessons with apparent interest from their large pen. Wonder what they were thinking? The memory of those big, wise, wrinkly faces has stayed with me ever since, so I guess it was inevitable that eventually I'd write about them. My novel-in-progress features, among other characters, an actual Ringling elephant named Dolly, whose sad story I read about long after I'd left home. Working title: The Elephant Graveyard.

“My” elephant graveyard refers to an actual place that reportedly existed on the grounds of the winter quarters (which left Sarasota decades ago), but stories about other, wilder and more exotic elephant graveyards in various places in the world have been around for quite some time. Most of these stories stem from popular legends of a special, secret place where old and sick elephants, it's said, go to die. No one has ever found such a place, which you can read about here, but the idea of an elephant graveyard adds to the deep mystique of these large-brained, complex creatures.

Here are two stories about elephants that are true. First, elephants as a species, at least in some parts of the world, may be losing their tusks. It's a natural response to the violence of poachers who kill elephants for their valuable ivory. Being born without tusks is a genetic variation or mutation (and a real handicap for the tuskless elephant) that was once rare, but is increasingly common as elephants who have tusks are illegally and cruelly slaughtered before they have a chance to reproduce. In many places, poachers have decimated the elephant population. (More about this here.)

The second elephant story involves the opposite problem: too many elephants. This is the same dilemma faced by wild horses in America, but with one big difference: elephants are huge! They’re the largest land mammals living on earth today. A wild African elephant can weigh more than ten times what a wild horse weighs, so they take up a lot more space, eat a lot more food, and trample any vegetation that happens to be under their massive feet. In South Africa, a successful elephant conservation program has led to an increase in the elephant population from only 100 animals a century ago to more than 20,000 today, most of them living within fenced preserves. Yikes!

But it turns out that science is providing one solution: the same solution, in fact, that is keeping some populations of wild horses within sustainable limits in America. PZP, the immune system-based contraceptive developed in Montana by Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick and first tested on the wild horses of Assateague, Maryland, works just as well—even better!—when given to female elephants. It’s safe, has no significant side effects, and is close to 100 percent effective in preventing elephant pregnancies. One South African province is leading the way into the future, expanding its use of PZP as a much kinder alternative to culling herds. You can read about that here. Very cool story.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Pony Penning time!

There aren’t many traditions that continue for more than 87 years, and even fewer whose popularity and longevity are the direct result of a modest story published for children 65 years ago. I can only think of one: the annual pony penning in Chincoteague, Virginia. Or, as a recent headline in the Baltimore Sun put it, “the magical ‘Misty’ pony swim.”

This year, a crowd of some 40,000 was expected to view the approximately six-minute swim. It's always a mixed group, including lots of children but also many parents and grandparents, for whom being here is a lifelong dream come true. Whether the dream began with reading Marguerite Henry's 1947 Newbery Honor-winning book Misty of Chincoteague, or seeing the 1961 movie inspired by the book, Misty's fans travel as far as they must to stand in what is almost sure to be sweltering heat and clouds of biting insects. Beginning at daybreak, they gather to wait for the chance to watch about 165 small horses cross the 75-yard-wide channel between Chincoteague and the undeveloped Assateague Island, where the ponies live. 

The wild pony herd—they’re traditionally called “ponies” on Chincoteague, though technically they’re small horses—is owned by the island’s volunteer fire company, which provides “saltwater cowboys” on horses of their own to round up the wild ponies on Assateague each July and drive them across the channel to Chincoteague. There, after a short rest and many photo ops, the ponies are paraded through the small town of Chincoteague to tree-shaded holding pens, where they’re kept for two days before the youngest animals are auctioned off to the highest bidders. At the end of the festival, with less fanfare, the older ponies quietly swim back to Assateague to live for another year. Money raised by the annual auction supports the fire company and provides funds for new equipment, but it’s more than that. The pony swim brings in so many visitors for the 16-day festival that it fuels the town economy for the other 349 days of the year, and the locals wait for it all year with as much eager anticipation as the tourists. You can read more about the creation of Misty of Chincoteague and the centuries-old roots of pony penning here and here.

I didn’t go to the pony swim this year, but I did go once, with my daughter, who grew up riding ponies, and my husband, who spent those same years mowing pastures and fixing fences. There are many things I love about pony penning week, and some things I don’t. As a horse-crazy girl who never outgrew that passion, and who also grew up near saltwater and sand on the coast of Florida, I can’t help but love a tradition that puts wild beach-dwelling horses at the center of it all. But what I love most about it is that the people come here, year after year, because of a book.

Misty of Chincoteague, never out of print since 1947, was one of a whole library of horse novels I read and reread as a child. And now, as a writer drawn to both fiction and nonfiction stories, I kind of love the fact that Misty is a little bit of both—a fictionalized account of mostly real events, people, and animals, embellished by the author's fertile imagination in a time before sharp distinctions between the genres were so strictly observed. It's a book that may seem a bit dated to today's readers, but it has stood the test of time.

What I don’t love so much about pony penning is that it’s hard on young foals to be separated from their mothers at such an early age, hard on the mares who will likely become pregnant again soon after (if they aren't already), and disruptive to the many small, close-knit wild horse bands that make up the herd. Still, the sale of most of each year’s new foals does keep the overall number to within the 150-horse limit that it has been determined the Virginia portion of Assateague island can support without undue damage to the habitat. It’s a different approach from the way a related herd of wild horses on the Maryland side of Assateague Island is managed, but pony penning is a way of life for the people of Chincoteague, and the saltwater cowboys of the Chincoteague volunteer fire company work hard to take care of the wild ponies they maintain.

(If you want to read about how National Park Service rangers and scientists manage the wild horses of Assateague Island, Maryland—once part of the same herd as their Virginia cousins—check out my book, Wild Horse Scientists, coming from Houghton Mifflin Books for Children this November 6!)

So what do you think? Did you ever read Misty of Chincoteague, and thrill to the irresistible legend of shipwrecked  ponies swimming to safety on a nearby island, to live wild and free? Did you dream of having one of Misty's descendants in your own back yard? If you buy a wild pony and build it a barn in your back yard, does the pony stop being wild? 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wild Horses, Wild Weather

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, we’re in the grip of a sticky, sweltering heat wave today. As the afternoon steamed on, the thermometer outside my office window read 96 degrees, but with humid air sitting over everything like a damp sponge, the heat index was well over 100. I had ridden Remy early, but there was no beating the heat, even at 8 a.m. Both of us, I and my wonderful horse, sweated and puffed and were happy to be done by 9. Then he got a cold shower, some sweet hay, and a couple of horse cookies that he enjoyed under his fan which, though it only blew hot air around, at least kept the flies away. I got the air conditioner in my car, cranked up to full blast.

On Assateague Island, Maryland—some 200 miles to the south—I imagine the wild horses made their way to the ocean and stood up to their bellies in the surf during the hottest part of the day. Greenheads and other biting flies would be out on a day like this, along with clouds of mosquitoes, and this is one method these small feral horses have devised over hundreds of years to survive extremes of summer in their unnatural home.

When I first thought of writing about the wild horses of Assateague, it was their vulnerability and toughness that most impressed me. It still is. By the time my book, Wild Horse Scientists, is published on November 6 of this year by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, as part of the acclaimed “Scientists in the Field” series, the Atlantic hurricane season of 2012 will be nearing an end. I hope it will have been kind to humans and other animals alike. Now, when summer storms or winter blizzards hit this part of the world, I always think of the island horses who manage to survive whatever nature throws at them without any of the comforts or protections my pampered domestic horse enjoys. The brilliant Diane Ackerman wrote about this very thing last month in the New York Times; you can read her article here.

This is my very first blog post ever, so I’m going to be figuring out what I want to say at the same time that I’m saying it. As publication date nears, I expect to post a bit more frequently, but for now I just want to say, “welcome!” I hope you’ll come back often, and that you’ll share your own thoughts and comments. In the meantime, I just want to share a bit of good news: Wild Horse Scientists has been chosen by the Junior Library Guild, and will be featured in their fall 2012 catalog. This is a huge honor, and what makes it even more exciting is that the JLG picks the books it will showcase prior to the actual publication of those books. These last few months of waiting for the book to become real are hard, but hearing that my book was selected makes that day seem just that little bit closer!