My First Deployment with HSUS: 200+ Animals Rescued from a Hoarder

This desolate property is strange and unnerving, a reckless spot of scrubland in eastern Arizona. The big rig for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is being carefully negotiated into position as I follow the lead team on foot. Dry silt shifts beneath our feet. The cold wind whips our hair. There is no water out here—it must be hauled in—and I am already feeling thirsty.  

Scattered across the terrain, we find dogs. Some are wandering; some are chained to trees; many are locked in dilapidated vans filled with feces. Their numbers increase as we approach a few broken down trailers and a multitude of haphazard chain-link enclosures. Soon we are surrounded by dogs. Dogs of every conceivable size and color. Dogs in every direction. All their buckets are empty. I hear there are dead bodies, too, and one trailer stuffed with cats. In all my years of animal work, I have never experienced such a surge of sympathy. Hoarding paper dolls and old clothes and stacks of who-knows-what is fodder for television shows. Hoarding living beings is beyond comprehension.

As my first deployment with HSUS’ National Disaster Animal Response Team (NDART), I am here to assist with the transport and care of what will turn out to be 228 animals—dogs, cats, geese and one skinny pig—that have been enduring inadequate resources far too long. (I cannot show photos, but see video at and    

The operation is enormous and logistically complex, and I am impressed by its execution. Alongside HSUS are many skilled partners: sheriff and deputies, police officers, veterinarians, animal handlers and documentarians. It is calm efficiency that facilitates the seizure. 

At intake tables set up on-site, each animal is given a number and a veterinary check. Some arrive with mangy skin, fractured bones and open, untreated wounds. But when I squat to peek into the carrier of a tan shepherd mix, my reaction is visceral. Brown eyes are sunken into her distorted face. Muscle wasting, the horrifying effects of malnutrition. Emaciated, we write on her form, but the word cannot fully describe the agony of her skeletal frame. 

“You’re going to be okay now,” I tell her, knowing she is only hours from her first gut-revving meal. But I cannot linger. There are 150+ dogs coming behind her, others in her same condition. I must move on.

After the animals are processed, they will be carried in the big rig to a temporary shelter assembled and run by the outstanding corps from United Animal Nations (UAN). Once the legalities are settled, HSUS will drive them to adoption agencies throughout the region and they will be given another stab at happy living. I am giddy with the idea of that shepherd, contentedly plump,  frolicking over grass with a squeaky toy. 

It will take several 15-hour days to get all these animals secured and address their medical needs at the shelter. The labor is intense. My service is voluntary and I am only here for a week, but HSUS professionals do this work every day. Funded by donations, they travel tirelessly to rescue victims of puppy mills, fighting rings and hoarding cases like this one. Seeing their dedication first hand, I am ever grateful for their commitment to animals in need. And I am honored to support their efforts.

I am now a big fan of PetSmart Charities, too. They have delivered a semi-truck full of supplies—all the kennels, food, leashes, blankets, bowls, etc.—$60,000 in aid for these animals. And I’ve learned their Emergency Relief Waggin’ is always on the go, carrying life-saving materials around the nation and relocating adoptable dogs from overcrowded shelters.

In the days to follow I will work with so many amazing people and come to recognize most of the dogs we are confiscating today. I will stop to visit the tan shepherd regularly. She will eat, small amounts at first, and I will see her eyes brighten. I will assist with veterinary exams and paperwork. This week will unfold like an origami of rewards and when I depart I will know a deeper compassion. But alas, I get ahead of myself.

Another load of dogs has arrived at the intake tables to be ferried from this starving land. I must get back to the task at hand.

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Letting Go

When I was a young girl, my mother wrote a beautiful poem.  It was a bold, stirring tribute to my coming of age and her words honored our bond even as she fastened wings that would let me fly. Rediscovering the poem many months ago, I slipped it into my blog folder. I was hoping to share it with you someday. It says so much about my mom. About love.  

Mom lost her cherished partner of sixteen years to cancer last week. I have only just returned from the trip that saw his passing—days of hand-holding, tears, whispered prayers. The pain of my mother’s loss still raw, I opened the blog folder today and stumbled upon this … her poem. The serendipity could not be overlooked. It’s time. 

Letting Go by Barbara Bessesen 

My heart – your heart

My life – yours

Woven mysteriously

Who be warp or woof

Intrinsically connected

From beginnings long ago

Now leaning towards

Pathways walked

Alone or arm in arm

Young, strong knight

Beckons toward the moon

I yield

Heartstrings tight

Stars to grasp

Reach high

This beauty emerging

From a child’s cacoon –

Or crumbling walls that kept

the world at bay

Tender flesh of my own




Soon to be

That golden butterfly

Sending kisses to my soul. 

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Grant Approved for Extension Survey of Golfo Dulce

Guess what?!? We have another eco-adventure ahead! I just received notice that my recent proposal was approved by Friends of the Osa ( I have been granted another Greg Gund Memorial Fellowship to continue my conservation research in Costa Rica, so I’ll be returning to the Osa Peninsula this July! Woo hoo! I can’t wait to see all my friends and get back on the waters of Golfo Dulce (

I have posted many blogs about the Multi-Species Marine Sighting Survey of 2010, so you are well aware of the joys and challenges and rewards of that project ( We did our initial survey in January and February mostly because it was the dry season and the dry season is… well, drier. Clear weather made our work easier as we collected data that ultimately answered some questions about how marine life utilizes Golfo Dulce.

But as we finished that survey, we began wondering… what changes might be seen during the rainy season? That’s the nature of science, answers only raise more questions. 

By collecting 20-30 additional days of sightings during July and August, our baseline data will be expanded to give a more comprehensive look at Golfo Dulce, and important seasonal shifts may be illuminated.

Mike is generously donating his boat again and Guido remains my scientific sounding board ( Of course I will be working with my right-hand man, Jorge! As before, our study goals are to document which species enter or reside in the Gulf during the survey period and look for distribution patterns. I know we will record sea turtles again and those amazing pelagic sea snakes! But we’re also crossing fingers we’ll document southern hemisphere Humpback whales ( and maybe even whale sharks.

I’m especially excited to learn more about the resident Bottlenose dolphins. By analyzing my photographs after the last survey and using scars and the distinctive shapes of dorsals and tail flukes, I was able to identify up to 40 individuals. So we can now chart the movement of those recognized dolphins within the marine habitat. That alone should reveal some cool insight into the Gulf ecology.

There is a lot of work ahead and no doubt some logistical hassles, but I am already beaming as I begin preparations. In just five months I will be back in the wild! You’ll be there too, taking in the sights and sounds through blog and facebook postings. I’m even taking a small video camera to upload clips. So let’s gear up and get ready for another exciting trip to Costa Rica!

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A Visit with an Ancient Tree

Sitting by “The Grand Oak” (sp. Quercus agrifolia) on the grounds of Highland Springs Resort in Cherry Valley, CA. photo by Dan Bessesen.

“Are you really 1100 years old?” she asked the Oak, her eyes wide with the wonder of it. 

Yes, whispered the tree. It is true.

“Oh please then, tell me what you’ve seen.” And she sat on the sun-dappled earth, curled her arms around her knees, and examined the tree’s gnarled trunk, as wrinkled and weathered as an old man’s face. She gazed up at the broad stretch of leaves which rustled and glittered a hundred feet across, a cool umbrella against the brilliant sky, as the tree shared its history. 

I have been alive more than nine million hoursThe tiptoe of days has become the stride of centuries. Still, seasons swing ‘round and ‘round and ‘round again. Nothing remains the same.

I have seen tender saplings grow full, only to have their leaves whisked away by the autumn wind. I have seen snowflakes arrive as tiny puffs of innocence and commune to cover whole mountaintops. But come spring, delicate flowers bloom in their melting wake. These are the ways of the world. 

I have endured the chill of night, the scorching sun, the prick of rain. I have trembled against a riot of storms, crashing and flashing until I stood bare in surrender. I have felt the lick of wildfire charring my skin, leaving indelible black scars. And I have watched a forest of brothers carved to pieces and carried away until the landscape fell to grass.  

Yet I have basked in the calm of night, the warming sun, the gift of rain. I have swayed to birdsong. I have relished spectacular sunsets, clouds of every color.  I have been tickled by breezes that taste of the sea. I have witnessed weddings and the quiet celebrations of lovers. I have listened to the laughter of children. And I have spoken with many, many people like you; even Albert Einstein came to discuss matters of the mind.

 “And what …” she inquired, eyes damp with reverent tears, “… what have you learned from it all?”

That life is precious, my child, and even a millennium seems far too short.

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Golfo Dulce data on OBIS SEAMAP

As you know, I recently attended the American Cetacean Society Conference in California. There Dr. Pat Halpin succinctly stated, “Effective marine spatial planning requires accurate, detailed and accessible information on marine life.”  Indeed, collecting and publishing such information was the exact goal of our multi-species marine sighting survey in Costa Rica!

So, I am excited to announce that our 2010 whale, dolphin and sea turtle data has been added to OBIS SEAMAP:  OBIS (Ocean Biogeographic Information System) is an international marine species database that assists in the identification of biodiversity hotspots and large-scale ecological patterns around the globe. 

By providing the first data for Golfo Dulce, we have put it on the map—so to speak—and decision makers now have access to baseline information, which may prove helpful when evaluating marine spatial planning initiatives (like a tuna farm). It is one more step forward in my effort to reveal the abundance of marine life that makes Golfo Dulce such a rich and important habitat.

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Jane Goodall: 40 Years in My Heart

Today I ordered a copy of Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe, the newest offering in Ms. Goodall’s long line of profoundly important books. That’s nice—you may be thinking—but is this morsel of minutia worthy of a blog post? Yes. Jane Goodall is worthy of a thousand blog posts. She is a living legend and my all-time hero.

That curious young Brit and her wild chimp companions were my earliest inspiration to carve a path into the hinterland of nature and science. I remember watching them on our living room TV, long blonde hair and black fur interacting amid the heady greens of Africa. How very, very far away they seemed. And yet something in their sheer existence rang a bell of possibility in my head.

No doubt a million little girls around the world thrilled to the idea of living like Jane Goodall in her jungle wonderland. Some of us still do. When asked as child who I most wanted to meet, I always named two people. Koko the gorilla ( And Jane Goodall. (Knowing this, I am sometimes astounded that I didn’t end up primatologist.)

My dream to gain a tête-à-tête with Jane stayed with me into adulthood. I used to check the JGI website, hoping to find a lecture nearby. Then, in the summer of 2005, my dream came true—I met Jane Goodall.  Kevin and my mom joined me at a small retreat called “When Peace Comes”, hosted by Dr. Brian Luke Seaward. The now eminent United Nations Messenger of Peace was our keynote speaker.

When she stepped before our 100-member audience and told her secretary cum scientist story in that sincere milky-soft voice, you could have heard a pin drop. She was gentle yet riveting in the way that masters always are. Ghandhi. The Dalai Lama. Jane Goodall.

Despite her desire to spend life with the chimpanzee families in Gombe, Jane said the only way she felt she could truly help the apes of Africa was to touch the world with their story. Touch the world, she has. At 75, Jane continues to travel over 300 days a year, sharing her hope, empowering communities, one lecture—one book—at a time.

So I am excited to read Jane Goodall: 50 years at Gombe and celebrate this woman and her compelling devotion. If you read it, too, please write me and tell me what you think. For those of us who attempted to follow in her light, I suspect it will be more than an enchanting reminiscence of time and place. I believe it will reignite our commitment to make a difference. And for those young readers who have yet to find their life’s way, I trust the book will inspire and delight. Perhaps it will even ring a bell of possibility.

For the record… I’m still hoping to meet Koko someday. It could happen. After all, dreams sometimes come true.

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Choosing sides in this Christmas dichotomy

Mix six cups kindness with three cups tension. Add a half teaspoon expectation and a pinch of resentment for flavor. Bubble in pressure cooker for 25 days. It’s a calamitous recipe! However, as the city once again dons her spectacular sequined gown, I am filled with a deeply satisfying sense of goodwill. I can’t help myself… I love the holidays!

This annual celebration is not exclusively religious. At the heart of it is our humanity. Christmas is about sharing time with people we love. It’s about nurturing children and families and strangers in need. It’s about gratitude and generosity. It’s about hope.

Oh, don’t think me a Pollyanna. I’ve seen the dark side of December. My Holiday Spirit lost its innocence long ago, mugged in the alley behind Stress Street. Commitments bombard us from every angle until our minds are tattered. A final, frantic night of wrapping and we’re like that fried egg commercial. “This is your brain on Christmas.”

And, unfortunately, there’s no escaping our obligations.

But if we just stop—and breathe—we can still feel the magic, the wonderment of the Season that enchanted us as children. Sometimes we are even momentarily transported back to that carefree epoch of Christmas past…

I remember wool-wrapped shoppers tiptoeing across doilies of freshly fallen snow. I remember my first taste of eggnog. And racing my toboggan down snowy hills until my fingers were too cold to unzip my parka.

I remember the sweet, heady scent of warm mulled wine from my mother’s crystal glass. And caroling with family friends past cozy fire lit windows. And my big brother pointing out Rudolph’s red nose twinkling in the sky on Christmas Eve.

I remember the Life-Saver Storybook that was always in my stocking. And unwrapping outrageously cool toys… maybe a Lite Brite, a Smurf or a Slinky. Perhaps a mood ring or a set of Click Clacks (sadly, time would reveal the surprising fact that slamming two glass balls together is dangerous.)

Ah, yes, those were the days. Or were they? Swept away by nostalgia, snuggling into the folds of reminiscence, I suddenly recall that Christmas as a child was not entirely devoid of disappointment.

Take my annual meeting with Mr. Claus. Here’s a guy who runs a global empire that services millions of homes every year. Sure, he’s got elves working production, but he handles The List and distribution on his own, not mention personal appearances. Santa is obviously over-worked. And it’s no secret… he’s old. So it always bothered me that he didn’t take notes during our pre-holiday conference. If he’d had some secretarial assistance, I doubt he would have forgotten the horse I requested seven years in a row!

Alas, Christmas is an endless dichotomy. There is no better example of the contrast than the sight of people shoving one another to grab the last box of cards with PEACE scribed on them.

Ultimately, we each are destined to choose which side of Christmas we want to reflect. The joy? Or the frustration?

I’ll not deny the high road is challenging; some Scrooge is always trying to bring you down. But my Holiday Spirit possesses a concealed weapons license now—it packs a positive attitude—and never travels Stress Street after dark.

Just remember, Christmas isn’t about buying the biggest present. It’s about being present. It’s about laughter and sentiment and church choirs reaching notes so exquisite they give you goosebumps. It’s about tradition.

Of course everyone enjoys the twinkle of a tinsel-hung tree, giving (and getting) gifts and savoring the aromas of a hearty feast. But if these things were stolen from us by say, a Grinch… would we still sing aloud like the Whos in Who-ville? I like to think we would.

Wishing you the gentle gifts of health and happiness. Merry Christmas!

From a column I wrote for Take 5 Entertainment and News Guide, L.L.C. © 2005

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Southern California Oasis is a Birdwatcher’s Paradise

San Jacinto Wildlife Area in Southern California

My father wakes me at 6:15am with a tentative knock on the bedroom door. My last memory is dozing off, the satisfaction of last night’s rich Thanksgiving dinner still warm in my belly. Kevin and I are at the ranch for the holiday weekend; I crawl over his sleeping frame, pull on my warmest clothing and step out into the brisk air. Dad is ready at the car and he chuckles at my quiet morning demeanor.

We drive some distance through craggy brown mountains that look like crumpled tinfoil—the landscape is barren save for a bit of brush that has turned dry and fragile from winter’s breath. Soon we arrive at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area; an unassuming sign marks an open wire gate and we slip our car through. Ahead, thick green reeds appear utterly lost in the desert. They sway, whispering a single word. “Water.”

Black-shouldered kite

As we enter this delicious oasis hidden among the sun-baked hills, we suddenly begin spotting birds in every direction. We pass a pond and a hundred American coots lift off the waterway, tiptoeing along the surface to stay awing. A blue-winged teal flashes us with a broad patch of powder blue feathers as he flaps through the picturesque scene. And just as we park and get out to walk, a kestrel (“sparrow hawk”) dips in front of the car to catch a meal.

Dad and I whirl in delight, tapping one another on the shoulder and silently pointing to various discoveries. He finds a lovely Snowy egret standing on the shore, poking at its own reflection. I, too, see a white bird. But this one is a bird of prey, good-sized, perched high in tree. I swing camera to eye. It’s a White-tailed kite, eyes like midnight.

Hiking a back trail, Dad and I chat about our mutual love of nature and I am excited to learn that he used to keep a list of all the bird species he’d seen since boyhood. Of course I already know I’m a chip off the ol’ block, maybe even a naturalist by genetic design.

Black phoebe and reflection

We stop to photograph a sweet little Black phoebe, a flycatcher of sorts, swooping to capture bugs off the smooth water, and when we turn we find a tiny Anna’s hummingbird among the leaves, whose head keeps flashing magenta.

At last this watery world seems to be quieting for the day, so we head back to the car and roll toward the gate. Suddenly we spy an enormous cinnamon colored bird painting the horizon, its wingbeats slow and laborious. What is it? As we drive closer, the giant turns away, showing us the white bar across its tail feathers. Amazing! A Golden eagle sliding across the sky in winged glory, the lush foliage stretching to touch its feet.

Like Dad’s childhood list, I write down all that we’ve seen—warblers, ibis, ducks, blackbirds, pipits… about 25 species in just two hours—a successful day of bird watching by any standard. And as we exit the gate I feel like I’m leaving Disney Land. I find myself looking back over my shoulder, straining to keep focus on three Red-tailed hawks swirling overhead as though they are on an amusement park ride, hoping my daddy will bring me back to this magical place again.

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Killer Whales Top Off a Killer Day

Mom and baby Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus)

It’s cold. Despite the radiant orb hanging low, unobstructed by clouds, and the pretty waves of blue rhythmically lifting our boat, despite our smiling faces and the playful energy of the sea lions off our port side, all of which give the deceptive impression of a balmy day at sea—it’s cold. The wind insists on slipping beneath my scarf-crowned layers and through the weave of my gloves trying, itself, to escape the November chill.

But this kind of nagging discomfort can’t squelch my enthusiasm. I’m here in Monterey for the biennual conference of the American Cetacean Society (, a weekend event that always begins with a much-anticipated day of whale watching.

Imagine attending a golf conference to listen to the pros speak, and getting to spend a day on the green with them. That’s what this feels like. Several of our co-passengers are renowned biologists who hold astonishing insight into the world’s whales, dolphins and porpoises. 

blue shark (Prionace glauca)

We have already seen a pod of Risso’s dolphins, blunt-faced, whitish of color, bodies covered with scratches and scrapes as unique as fingerprints. We’ve also watched three Humpback whales of enormous girth, proof of a good feeding season. Swarms of sea nettles, a pair of sea otters, a cluster of small sunfish (Mola mola), and one eight foot blue shark. At every sighting, well-informed marine experts add factoids to the collective knowledge.

Now, as I stand at Sea Wolf’s side rail eavesdropping on a couple guys talking shop about field techniques for studying small endangered cetaceans, the onboard naturalist announces something (I don’t understand what) and everyone quickly shuffles to the other side of the boat. I’m slow to move, lost in thought. I’m still staring into the white froth splashing up from the boat keel, which is as mesmerizing as a bonfire, when two large elliptical black and white bodies sail by in the water just beneath me. Two orcas, eyes rolled up to catch mine.

The surprising visage takes a moment to process because this is the first time I’ve personally seen transient killer whales (Orcinus orca) off California. Turns out we are encountering a small pod of four—the two on the other side of the boat—and the two that just flew by. The resident naturalist tells us this is a known mother with three offspring of varying ages.

They are spectacular! Bold faces break the surface followed by skyrise dorsal fins. One youngster is chasing floating birds like a child flushing pigeons in the park. I only take a few photos; I am too excited by their antics to barricade my eye with the camera. Laugher rings from the boat. As the onyx icons dash and dive alongside our vessel and everyone chatters about our good fortune, I feel auspiciously confident this is going to be an excellent conference weekend.

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A Warmhearted Audience is Half of the Equation

Last night I spoke in southern California for Friends of the Beaumont Library. The room was warmed with smiles. The air lifted in sweet moments of laughter. It was a lovely evening. And, as is always the case, much of the event’s success was a credit to the attendees. 

Truth told, public speaking is by far the most challenging, heart-on-sleeve part of my work. It’s not easy to stand before a crowd of peers—or children for that matter—hoping to give them something worthwhile, something that justifies their time spent listening. 

My mission is to empower an audience. Too lofty? Perhaps. But isn’t the whole point to inform and inspire? Done well, it seems empowerment should naturally follow. So, it’s not just about speaking—it’s about sharing

Always a bit of my soul is poured out among the anecdotes, leaving an inner hollow that threatens to send me home feeling emptied.

Except public speaking is not a one-way street. Its beauty is spawned from an assemblage. It thrives on an exchange of energy. One person may lead, but it is dance of many and I am dependent on and grateful for every synergistic audience. 

Like most talks, last night was a joy. I connected with kind, interesting and intelligent people, who silently yet enthusiastically joined in the experience—completing the circle. In their warmhearted response, they gave me something worthwhile, something that justified my time spent talking. They empowered me.

To be sure, their generous spirit filled that tiny hollow with a new bit of soul.

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