Monday, June 13 – Hvalfjörður

hvalfjordur map4

We started early today at 7:30 a.m.  It was hard to get up.  I’ve been having migraines every morning, and this morning was no exception, but it was a little better than yesterday.  I felt somewhat better after breakfast.

Sea tale

Today was spent at Hvalfjörður, or “whale fjord,” which I did my report on (pdf).  On the way, we stopped at a gas station that had information about whaling in Iceland (pdf), which is centered in Hvalfjörð.  While there, our guide Tobba told us about her role in rehabilitating Keiko, the captive orca star of Free Willy.  Keiko was in bad health from being held for years at a substandard amusement park in Mexico, and probably would have died had he been captive another year.  After seeing Free Willy, children found out the actual orca was in captivity and put together a campaign to free him. A foundation funded by the movie studio provided money to rehabilitate Keiko, and he was flown on a military plane to Iceland because that’s where he had been captured years ago.

Tobba works with Keiko in this still from Keiko: The Untold Story.

Tobba works with Keiko in this still from Keiko: The Untold Story.

Tobba worked with Keiko for a few years, and her work was covered in the documentary Keiko: The Untold Story.  She saw to it he got exercise, got in better shape, and encouraged him to join the groups of wild killer whales.  She said that the first year he was scared and hid behind the boat, but the second year he got a little closer, and the third year he followed them. We know he interacted with them because he came back with bite marks on his side.  At one point Keiko was found swimming with children off the coast of Norway, with parents encouraging the kids.  The foundation had to take out a protective order to stop people from letting their kids swim with Keiko.

Keiko lived six years after being freed, which Tobba considers a great success.  She also talked about what a sea pen would look like — a sanctuary for whales freed from captivity. Hvalfjörður would be perfect — just seal off some of the fjord with a net.  In my opinion this needs to happen, so that parks around the world that have these animals in captivity have an option for how to retire them.  Without an option, places like SeaWorld will keep the whales in captivity even if they are no longer using them in shows.

On a sad note, Tobba also talked about Tillikum, the killer whale who killed his trainer and two others.  SeaWorld has been keeping him in a tiny tank, and he is very sick. Tobba said they are keeping him for his sperm. I hope sometime soon we can make the sea pen for orcas happen, and wonder what that would take: How much money, what kind of negotiations with the government of Iceland, how to get the theme parks to send whales there, how much it would cost to take care of them, how to get accreditation for an ocean based sanctuary, etc.

Whale processing station operated by Hvalur HF, in Hvalfjörður, Iceland. Photo: Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg

Whale processing station operated by Hvalur H/F, in Hvalfjörður, Iceland. Photo: Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg

I have visited a number of accredited animal sanctuaries across the United States, and every one had a strong founder who had a vision and made it happen. A sea pen is a little more complicated than a land-based sanctuary, but it is the next logical step for dolphins and whales. The whaling station at Hvalfjörð could be turned into a center for caring for whales retired from captivity, rather than killing whales.  Someone would have to buy it from Kristjan Loftsson, owner of Hvalfur H/F whaling company, and he might be reluctant to sell, but if whaling in Iceland continues to lose money, he might come around. I don’t know who would be the right person or people to lead the charge on making this happen, but this is what I would love to see for the future of Hvalfjörður.

After the talk from Tobba, we drove past the Hvalfur whaling station.  Last year students saw a whale being processed, but this year there was no activity.  I was really glad about that. It happened because Loftsson called off the whale hunt this year, and I hope he doesn’t go back. The whale hunt has become unprofitable. Icelanders don’t eat whale meat, so Hvalur has to sell it to Japan which has an oversupply. Many countries do not allow Icelandic ships carrying whale meat to dock, making it hard to transport. It is apparent that the rest of the world does not want Iceland to continue killing an endangered species just to have the meat wind up in dog food.



Glymur. Photo: World of Waterfalls

We then went to Glymur, the second-tallest waterfall in Iceland at 649 feet.  Glymur had long been considered the tallest waterfall until retreat of the Vatnajökull glacier in eastern Iceland revealed a slightly taller waterfall in 2011.  Glymur, whose name means “rumble” or “clash,” was a popular destination before the Hvalfjörður tunnel was built, as the road around the fjord runs nearby. Although fewer people visit the waterfall now, it is considered one of the most beautiful areas of Iceland.

Glymur is situated just inland from the end of Hvalfjörður. The waterfall is part of the river Botnsá, which originates from Hvalvatn lake to the east. Hvalvatn is a 4 km (2.5 mi) lake surrounded by four volcanic mountains. The river Botnsá flows out west before falling down Hvalfell mountain into a steep canyon, though which it travels before flowing into the fjord.

Crossing the river Botnsá to hike to Glymur. Photo: World of Waterfalls

Crossing the river Botnsá. Photo: World of Waterfalls

The two-hour hike to the top of Glymur waterfall is steep and strenuous but incredibly beautiful. The trail requires hikers to climb rocky hillsides with only a rope for balance, walk narrow pathways with terrifying dropoffs, crawl through caves, and use a narrow log to cross a raging river. But the reward is stunning beauty with a view of the entire waterfall and the canyon below.

I was not able to climb all they way to Glymur though the photos looked gorgeous.  If I had brought hiking poles I might have been able to do it, but the steep steps and trails were more than I could handle.  I did get to the point where I could look over the river and see people going across the log crossing and up the other side.  Tobba and Susie were very kind in walking with me before heading down the steps to the river.

I lay down on that plateau for awhile, had a snack, then headed back.  I had to get to a bathroom, so our bus driver Sigthor took me back to the gas station.  By then it was open, so I used the facilities and got a snack.  When we got back to Glymur, the four guys were done with the hike, and everyone else was not far behind.

Sheep farm

Yash makes some new friends at Bjarteyjarsandur farm.

Yash makes some new friends at Bjarteyjarsandur sheep farm.

We then headed to the Bjarteyjarsandur sheep farm, a popular destination for agrotourism. Bjarteyjarsandur is a working farm run by three families with sheep, horses, free-range hens, cats, dogs, and wool rabbits. Visitors can book a cottage or camp overnight while learning about the farm and participating in activities. Thousands of school children and tourists visit the farm each year.

The experience at Bjarteyjarsandur emphasizes environment and sustainability. The farm’s main product is lamb meat raised organically, but it also sells artisanal handicrafts. Reforestation and soil reclamation are practiced to minimize erosion. Waste is minimized through conservation, reuse and recycling.



We got to hold baby rabbits and bottle feed orphan lambs.  I talked to a Canadian girl who was staying at the farm for three weeks in exchange for helping with daily chores. I also bought a wool scarf to replace a favorite scarf I lost last year.

We then headed to a swimming pool that turned out to be closed, and ended up walking on a black sand beach.  We got a geology and fossil lesson from Dr. Slater and got the company of an area dog.  At one point the students found a live starfish on the beach.  We took a few photos, and then I was really happy to see the students put the starfish back into the water.  There was an incident earlier this year when tourists found a sick baby dolphin on the beach.  They passed him around so much for photos that he died. I didn’t want that to happen in our case, and it didn’t.

Finally we got to a swimming pool in Borgarnes.  Since I hadn’t gotten in a full hike earlier in the day, I went right for lap swimming.  I got in 30 laps before it was time to go, and felt much better afterwards.

Here are a few more photos from the day. Click on any image to enlarge it:


Comparing causes

The death of Cecil, a well known lion who lived on a protected reservation as part of a research project in Zimbabwe, was hard enough to come to terms with.  It took about a week of me seeing posts about it in my Facebook feed before I could bring myself to look into it further.   Then when the killer was identified as a trophy-hunting dentist from Minnesota, it was even harder to deal with the fact that Cecil will so needlessly killed by an American.  As rage poured out from around the world, it was clear that Cecil’s killing struck a very deep chord in many people.

But then as others began comparing their causes to Cecil’s, as if to minimize what happened to him, my feelings became a jumble.  Of course these other causes were important, but so was this case, which represented far more than just one lion but the entire relationship of humans with animals and the environment.  To sort out my feelings, I wrote a Facebook note called “Comparing Causes,” which several of my friends began sharing and told me deserved a wider audience.

One of my friends had a particularly good suggestion: Submit it to The Dodo, an online publication about animals where writers and bloggers could submit their work.  I took her advice and posted it.  Then the next day I emailed the editors to ask if they would be willing to feature it — and they did!  This was quite an honor because only a very few pieces are selected to be featured on The Dodo, and usually those are by big names in the animal welfare profession.

On August 3, my piece — under the new and more click-worthy headline “Let’s Just Stop Using Cecil To Talk About Abortion” ran next to pieces by Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free, and Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.   The piece makes the points that all efforts to increase the welfare of humans, animals and the environment are important, that they are all related, that not every person has to participate in every cause, and that no one is perfect at even their own causes.

The Dodo posted the piece on their Facebook page, where it got over 1000 shares, and their Twitter feed, where it got about 100 retweets, favorites, and responses.   It also got 46 comments on the piece itself, most of them favorable but some not.  I was happy to see all of them.  This is my first foray into online publishing, and if I get this inspired by something in the future, I may just write something else.

Structured Decision Making – Cats vs wildlife

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making. The reading was Chapters 1 and 2, pp. 1-68, in Gregory, R., L. Failing, M. Harstone, G. Long, T. McDaniels and D. Ohlson. Structured decision making: A practical guide to environmental management choices (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

While I was reading the first two chapters of Gregory et al., I couldn’t help but think about an issue I have followed that I now recognize as using structured decision making to address a very thorny problem: outdoor cats vs wildlife. This is probably going to make all the scientists / environmentalists in the room shudder. But hear me out.

In December 2012, the Humane Society of the United States convened a conference with some of the top wildlife experts and top experts in cat shelter and rescue in the country. To say these groups are at war is an understatement. A few years ago a researcher at the Smithsonian was convicted of animal cruelty for setting out poison for a managed feral cat colony near her office in Washington, DC. The Smithsonian later turned out a metastudy concluding that cats kill billions of birds and small mammals a year.

Meanwhile cat are the most popular pet in the country with an estimated 95 million owned pet cats, many of whom let their cats run freely outdoors, as well as an estimated 50 million unowned free-roaming cats. About 4 to 6 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year, and of those about half make it out alive. However, cats are much more likely to be euthanized in shelters than dogs, and much less likely to be reclaimed by their owners. Because of this, the millions of people who feed outdoor cats don’t want them going to a shelter. They are not adoptable, so the only alternative for them if the shelter takes them is to euthanize.

So how to reconcile this impasse? The conference included stakeholders from the humane, wildlife, veterinary, and research communities, including Stan Gehrt from Ohio State and Don Burton of the Ohio Wildlife Center. The conference itself was mainly to start the dialogue and identify points of common ground, of which there was a surprising amount. For example, all stakeholders want to see the number of feral cats in the environment reduced. All want to preserve wildlife populations, especially endangered species, while also instituting humane management of outdoor cats. Their presentations at the conference can be found here.

One place where some of the principles discussed at the conference are being put into practice is in feral cat management in Hawaii, which as you can imagine is also a very sensitive ecosystem for wildlife. There a group of stakeholders was convened that included The Wildlife Society; University of Hawaii researchers; biologists from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources; U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service staff; representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors monk seals; volunteers with CatFriends and the Hawaii Cat Foundation; representatives of local humane societiesm and even staff of the American Bird Conservancy. The group took the name Hawaii Coalition for the Protection of Cats and Wildlife.

By working together, they were able to come to agreement on several points:

  • A fence to keep out predators was built around a sensitive monk seal and albatross hatching area. This successfully kept the cats out, and the number of offspring grew the following year.
  • An educational campaign promoting the idea that people keep their pet cats inside. Outdoor cats face dangers with cars, accidents, cruelty, and more. Feral cats only live a few years on average, but pet cats kept indoors can easily live 10 to 15 years (two of mine are 15 and are in great health). Make sure people know it is a crime to abandon a pet, and provide education on how to enrich the indoor environment.
  • Another campaign for feral cat feeders promoting the idea that if you feed outdoor unowned cats, you are also responsible for getting them spay-neutered and getting veterinary treatment for sick cats, along with creating programs for low-cost care. Also providing education on when they are dealing with a dumped pet cat that could be adopted into a new home, and working with shelters to make that happen.
  • Letting feral cat caretakers know that cats in areas designated for federal wildlife management are subject to trap and lethal removal, and offering alternatives for relocation.
  • Providing educational materials for how people can bring free-roaming cats indoors. Although it takes patience, in many cases it can be done. My other two cats are street rescues and have no desire to go back outside.

In the end, attitudes on both sides need to change. Cat caretakers need to recognize that cats were evolved to be predators, and that some of them do kill wildlife. The extent of that can be debated – I personally think many of the assumptions of the Smithsonian study were flawed, leading them to a inflated figure. But it does happen, and it can impact the ecosystem, especially where endangered species are present. Cat people also need to start bringing pet cats indoors, a change that will likely take a generation or so to occur. When I was a kid, people let their pet dogs run loose all the time, and now most places have leash laws. They will likely be passing ordinances not allowing pet cats to run loose either in coming years, and norms for this can change.

On the other side, wildlife people need to recognize that cats are the most popular pet in the country, and millions of people have a close bond with their pets. Millions more feel the responsibility to feed stray and feral cats that have been dumped and cannot take care of themselves in the environment. The army of “cat ladies” is not really what people expect. In many cases it is “cat men.”

These people are not going to go away, and banning feeding will only drive them underground. It is much better to take advantage of the free services that these people are providing on a volunteer basis by supporting open management through trap-neuter-return, where all the ground rules are clear up front. Most locations have practiced trap and euthanize for decades, yet we now have more feral cats in the environment than ever. So it’s time to give a different kind of management a try.

I don’t think the agreement that the stakeholders in Hawaii came to is a panacea. People will still dump pet cats, and still feed them without spay-neutering. But it’s the start of a process that could greatly reduce the problem over time. Hopefully the stakeholders there will be willing to stick with it long enough to make it work.

Letter to the Editor

In 2012 I worked hard to help pass SB 310, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which for the first time regulated private ownership of dangerous wild animals and constricting and venomous snakes in Ohio.  Passed in the wake of the “Zanesville massacre” of more than 50 lions, tigers, bears, primates and wolves set loose by suicidal owner, the law was the culmination of a decade of efforts to get the Ohio legislature to rein in the dangerous and inhumane breeding and selling of these animals in the state.  I helped by gathering testimony from a number of directors of accredited wildlife sanctuaries across the country, taking key sanctuary personnel to lobby state legislators, and providing my own testimony based on research and visits to dozens of zoos and sanctuaries across the United States.

One part of the exploitation of wild animals in Ohio that we were not able to address was the annual display of a tiger cub at football games by the Massillon Washington High School Booster Club.   This club has been buying or renting a different cub for display every year for over 40 years.  No one knows what has happened to most of the cubs, though four former Massillon mascots were found in unsafe conditions at an unaccredited facility near Toledo.  They are probably among the lucky ones, as many tiger cubs bred for photo and petting booths end up in backyards, basements, barns, or canned hunts.

Though we were not able to stop this display in Massillon — the bill would not have passed without it — we were able to get a provision inserted into the law that required the booster club to pay for care of the tiger cub for life at an AZA or ZAA accredited facility.  Such care is not cheap – it runs at least $10,000 a year to house and feed a tiger, and tigers live up to 20 years.  So imagine my surprise when I read that the Massillon booster club was continuing to use new tiger cub mascots every year rented from Stump Hill Farm, one of the most prolific breeders of tiger cubs in the state but not accredited by AZA, ZAA or anyone else.

In response, I wrote the following letter that got published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Massillon’s live tiger mascot doesn’t seem to abide by state’s wild animal law

I have closely followed the debate over Ohio’s dangerous wild animal law and read your story on the Massillon tiger cub mascot (“Massillon Washington High School’s live tiger mascot to stay, boosters say, despite growing criticism,” PD, Dec. 24) with interest. However, it left me with several questions.

First, Sec. 935.03(B)(9) of Ohio’s law says an educational institution with a mascot must submit an affidavit attesting it will provide lifetime care for the animal in a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or Zoological Association of America. Lifetime care of a tiger runs $200,000. How can the Massillon football booster club afford this?

Second, Sec. 935.06(F) and (G) of the law says dangerous wild animals can only be transferred under certain conditions – rejection of a permit application or death of the owner – and the person transferring must tell the Ohio Department of Agriculture where the animal went.  Has Stump Hill Farm told the state where the previous Obies went?

Third, Sec. 935.07(A) of the law says dangerous wild animals can only be bred as part of a Species Survival Plan, which are administered by AZA-accredited zoos.  How can Stump Hill Farm, which is not accredited, continue to legally breed tiger cubs?

These questions and more would be worth a follow-up from your reporter.

Cathy Cowan Becker,

Grove City

Stages model of policy making

Peters’ discussion of the Stages Model of policy making was very interesting.  This model sees policy as going through five stages: agenda setting, formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation.  Peters’ main point is that the model does a better job of describing than explaining, and that it doesn’t reflect the degree of conflict at each stage.

I completely agree with that analysis.  Over the past four years, I had the opportunity to work with the Ohio staff of The Humane Society of the United States as it contributed to several laws and regulations regarding animals in the state.  The law I worked on most was to regulate ownership of dangerous wild animals.  That law passed through all the stages that the model predicts.  Agenda setting started years previous as Ohio had become known for its exotic animal auction and large private menageries.  Several incidents occurred such as when a man’s tiger killed his 2-year-old grandson, and another man’s bear killed his teenage caretaker.

But nothing was as high profile as the case of Terry Thompson in Zanesville, who released 60 big cats, bears, and primates before committing suicide, leaving police to kill all but six animals.  This triggering event set the agenda to finally push through legislation.  The formulation was done mainly in the Senate Agriculture Committee by Sen. Troy Balderson, and legitimation provided by directors of Ohio’s five accredited zoos.  The law gave implementation to the Ohio Department of Agriculture advised by a board of stakeholders that negotiated recommendations for standards such as cage size and veterinary care for the animals.

The entire process was wracked with conflict. Hundreds of exotic animal owners filled the chambers at every hearing.  Once the law passed, this group sued the state twice to have it declared unconstitutional and lost both times.  They clearly felt themselves to be the losers.  But the fact is, societies change, and laws must change with them.  There are more tigers in captivity in the United States than in all of the wild, and too many suffered in horrible conditions under private ownership.  Most people feel animal welfare counts, and I am very proud to say that my contribution to this law helped dozens of exotic animals get moved to accredited sanctuaries.