It All Started with an Elephant

Today I worked at ACC (the Phoenix Zoo animal hospital). I used to be on staff there. That was years ago. Now I simply cover occasional days throughout the year.

I still love it. And this morning, as I was weighing a corn snake with skin the color of sunshine, lifting its sinuous body onto the gram scale, I got to thinking about the special relationship I’ve had with the zoo over the past two decades.

my Ruby painting

My first interaction with the Phoenix Zoo was around 1991 when I was given the special opportunity to buy an original Ruby painting, which was something like being invited to the moon by Neil Armstrong. Ruby was the zoo’s famous painting elephant. I had recently read her story in Smithsonian Magazine and still remember the thrill of carrying her artwork to my car, feeling I had escaped with a treasure beyond any sum of money. Ever since, Ruby has decorated my bedroom wall in warm pinks and teals.

Ruby l'artist (this photo came with my painting)

here I'm working with an anteater and muntjac

working with an anteater and muntjac in the 90s

In 1994 I applied for a job at the Phoenix Zoo and worked several years as a veterinary technician/keeper at ACC. I found a world of like-minded people; many became life-long friends. I even met Ruby! She was incredibly beautiful and smart, if a little temperamental (as artists are known to be). It’s still so painful to recall the day Ruby died after complications with a pregnancy. The entire zoo collapsed into mourning. Not long after, I left my ACC job to take a full-time position producing television.

My involvement with the zoo might have ended there, but life is an intricate weaving and certain threads cross many times.

Years later, while producing a story on Black-footed ferrets for National Geographic Channel, I found myself back at the zoo, shooting footage of two old keeper friends and celebrating their efforts to save a species (watch the video at

"ruby" by philosophy

Soon after, I met Cristina Carlino. I was producing a story for the Style Network about the international hair and skin care company, philosophy®, which has delightfully simple yet insightful packaging. Cristina was the company’s founder and during our interview I discovered she was a fan of the late great Ruby.

She told me she had always wanted to do one of her popular charity products to support elephant conservation, so I put her in touch with people at the zoo. As that project moved forward, Cristina offered me the profound honor of writing the bottle copy. Another trip to the moon. To this day, ruby graces a shelf near my painting… a reminder of life’s mysterious interconnectedness. (Read the bottle copy at

It’s no surprise then that when my first book was published in 2004, the zoo hosted the launch. It was so fitting. That sunny April day, surrounded by friends and family—and all the animals who sit at the center of my heart—I slipped into my newest skin. Author. Ambassador. Liaison. Whatever the title, I now transform my work with wildlife into written words. Much like producing stories, just a more solitary form.

tiger training at ACC

A final twist: Since I kept up my veterinary technician certification, in 2007 I was asked to do relief work at ACC and, back under the zoo’s auspices, I soon expanded my writing to scientific work, another level of knowledge sharing.

I have come full circle.

Time rushes like a mighty river—with unremitting speed and strength, it sweeps us along. How could I have known the zoo would be such a significant part of my life journey? My work there has fostered a deeper fascination and respect for the natural world. It has spurred my interest in conservation research, inspired me to personally help protect wildlife.

And it all started with an elephant. I think of myself back in the early 90s, so young, Ruby wrapped in my arms, relishing my stroke of good fortune. Unknowing that so much would come to pass. Unknowing that I would be working today at ACC, hair in ponytail, zoo radio on my belt, a gorgeous corn snake in my hands.

Life is good.

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A curious sea lion approaches me underwater while diving off the Galapagos Islands. Sea lions, sea turtles, whales and dolphins are just a few ocean denizens who will benefit from tomorrow's cleanup.

Tomorrow—Saturday September 25—is Ocean Conservancy’s 25th Annual International Coastal Clean-up. Each year, more than 500,000 people participate in 100 countries around the globe to collect MILLIONS of pounds of disgusting and dangerous trash!

There are a gazillion cleanup sites in Southern California alone. Imagine all the red dots around the world!

Some volunteers scuba dive, but most simply walk beaches and waterways, removing garbage along the shoreline. This grassroots program makes a substantial impact on aquatic habitats—improving the health of oceans, rivers and lakes, improving the health of fish and other creatures, and ultimately improving the health of humans who depend on water and wildlife for our own survival.

There are cleanup crews in almost every state and it’s not too late to participate. Just click the link to find your closest location and join the team for this special effort:

Last year, Kevin and I participated right here in Arizona by scuba diving in Lake Pleasant. Although the visibility was terrible and we had to link arms to stay together, we filled our bag with tangles of fishing line, discarded bottles, cups and cans, broken sunglasses, lost shoes, and several algae covered golf balls. It was fun! And a refreshing way to pass a hot desert day.

Hope to see you at the beach!

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A Forest Saved Yesterday Brings Glory Today

I have only been to Yellowstone National Park two times and each visit lasted less than twenty-four hours. Still, I have had—hands down—more wildlife sightings there in terms of both number and sheer variety of species than any other place in the continental United States. In that vibrant square of land posed in the northwest corner of Wyoming and protected since 1872, nature resides in full aplomb.

During my most recent visit to the park, I carved out a mere twelve hours for exploration—hardly enough time to even drive the winding loops that regale with chilling cliff-edge views, heady stands of pines, blue ribbon rivers and kaleidoscopic sulfur-scented geysers. Yet despite time constraints, I spied hundreds of forest denizens, including grizzlies, elk, deer, bison, pronghorn, coyote, osprey, bald eagles and as you read in my last blog, grey wolves. Some sightings were but specks migrating across distant grassy knolls, but many were close enough to catch musky odors on the passing breeze.

I have worked with many bears in captivity and encountered black bears in the wild, but this trip provided my very first glimpses of free-ranging Ursus arctos horribilis, those heavy shouldered brown bears disconcertingly dubbed “grizzly”. Impressed by their size, and more interestingly their social behavior, I spent hours watching them. First, I observed five bears near a carcass. The scene unfolded as four of them milled around, posturing, while one dominated the food, tugging with the full burden of its weight to rip small shreds off the remaining flat blackened meat. Later, I lucked out to see a mother bear with two cubs in a roadside meadow, nursing and grubbing around within 100 yards. Savvy to the surprising speed of a mother bear, I admittedly kept my attention piqued to changes in her demeanor.

I stopped to chuckle at herds of  buffalo, males grunting and pushing and rolling and following females with their tongues lolling out. I saw squirrels and birds and butterflies. Each and every wildlife sighting thrilled me. But I was equally excited by the creatures I didn’t see. I squinted into the blur of tree trunks, just wondering who was out there, hidden from view—surely a plethora of species, a whole national park filled with fauna, animals going about their days free from guns and loggers, mining and oil spills.

It’s no small feat to preserve such a magical place. In fact, did you know there was considerable opposition to the creating of Yellowstone National Park? Some feared the restrictions on resource development would hurt the economy. Even after it was established, arguments raged, regulations shifted, jobs were lost. It was the same struggle that exists today over different, but equally vital habitats (think Alaska/Arctic National Wildlife Refuge).

Yellowstone supporters said entrance-paying visitors would repay the country year after profitable year. Today, I cannot speak to the earnings of the park but the annual number of visitors is around 2.5 million! In fact, there are so many tourists in the summertime, both American and international, that air pollution from vehicles clogs the busiest fairways and a shuttle system will soon be required to make inner-park transportation easier and more sustainable. Suffice to say, the place is popular.

And it’s no wonder. My photos reflect the rewards of 1800s forward-thinking. All I can say is thank goodness there are people willing to forge into the political fray to save some natural landscapes for the rest of us.

I’m pretty sure the bears appreciate it, too.

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Wild Wolves in Yellowstone

I steady myself against the morning chill and lean into the spotting scope until my right eyelashes flutter in a dark tunnel. The world afar zooms into focus. All I can see is a cluster of hillside rocks and a funny wind-swept tree, grainy and grey in the early light. Then my pupil constricts on movement and my mind quickly reconciles the shape: a wolf.  No, wait… it’s a wolf pup

I stifle a small squeal of delight because it threatens to shake my focus and I don’t want to lose a moment of this experience. The animal crosses to a rocky outcrop and sits staring into the valley, braced on a jagged precipice by long front legs. Its fur, which looked nondescript in the shadows, suddenly glitters like wisps of gold when the rising sun creeps onto its back. I raise my camera and snap several greedy photos but, even with my 200-500 lens, the wolf is just too far away, a blond dot against ruddy stone. I go back to the scope.

Soon there are two more pups trotting around near the wind-swept tree. Under my breath I wager the youngsters are about 4-months old. 

“Yes …about,” whispers Kate next to me. “They were born in April. This is a new pack. It currently supports two young males with dense black fur, a four-year-old grey female called “06” (for the year she was born) and her first litter. Four pups. I don’t know where the other one is. I hope it’s okay.”

My odds of seeing these wild canids, these glorious creatures of abounding mystery and myth, were slim to none before meeting Kate. And meeting Kate was serendipitous indeed.

Driving across Montana, on my way back to Arizona from a month-long road trip, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to swing through Yellowstone National Park. I dearly wanted to see grey wolves in the wild and this would be another chance to look for them.

I arrived at the entrance gate in the late afternoon with three problems doodling in my brain. 1. I had no idea where to actually find wolves, 2. it was too early for wolf sightings—crepuscular, they tend to be more active at sunrise and sunset so I would have to cruise around until dusk, and 3. all the Yellowstone campsites were full so I couldn’t stay the night, which meant after my wolf quest I would be forced onto dark roads to find sleeping quarters outside the park.

Later, after several hours of driving the upper loop, hungry and exhausted, I stopped for a quick break at Roosevelt Lodge. Slipping into the last available rocking chair on the veranda to contemplate my next move, I found myself talking with a woman whose wavy grey hair was escaping her hat and cascading past soft blue eyes like a winter waterfall. Kate.

A twist of destiny, it turned out Kate has been observing Yellowstone wolves for twelve summers, and in our brief surreal conversation, she offered me space to park at her campsite and revealed the observation point for the Lamar Canyon pack—the wolf family I’m now watching through Kate’s spare spotting scope. 

I cannot get over my good fortune. Two siblings interact on the distant slope, playfully nudging each other before settling down a few meters apart to groom. The air is growing warmer and chatter in hushed tones spills around our feet as the surrounding assembly of onlookers increases. I take more pictures with inadequate zoom. In motion the wolves are clear and obvious, yet frozen by my camera lens their shapes are barely distinguishable from the boulders.

No matter. In the end I have seen two adult males and three pups, more than a hapless wanderer could hope for. I hug Kate goodbye, my heart filled with gratitude for our new friendship, and by the time the sun is climbing toward its zenith I’m on my way, heading toward home with visions of wild wolves still simmering in my chest.

Kate Saunders is a fused glass artist from Oregon. See her beautiful work at

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OSHKOSH NEWS: Littlest Aviator Steals the Show

Award-winning Air Show Pilots Must Swallow Their Pride When an Unscheduled Bird Takes Center Stage

Oshkosh, WI—August 2010—Every year, thousands upon thousands of aviation enthusiasts from around the world converge on Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the EAA AirVenture convention, arguably the largest gathering of pilots and planes anywhere. Attendees can listen to celebrity speakers and peruse show-stopping aircrafts. Many guests stay the full week, subsisting on little more than brats and ice cream cones and airplanes.

The annual event offers an array of thrilling sights and sounds, but perhaps most enjoyed are the daily air shows, when daredevil pilots twist the skies to the collective gasps and cheers of fans along the flight line. Zip—Zoom! Brightly bedecked planes dip and yaw overhead as the excited crowd shouts and waves from the ground.

Sunday, the final day of the convention, an especially prestigious line-up of performers dazzled onlookers with their aerobatic cunning. One after another, famed pilots in remarkable vessels—colorful crop-dusters, tricked out rocket gliders, fully-restored warbirds—took turns executing loops and rolls and dives of shocking endurance.

Yet nobody was prepared for what would happen next…

After pilot Gene Soucy and wingwalker Teresa Stokes finished their breath-taking routine and before the next act began, there was a short lull in the show, and for a few moments the wind over the runway fell still. Just then, a Barn Swallow, decorated in flashy blue and buff feathers, unexpectedly swooped into view, exhibiting his spectacular ability to catch insects on the fly. Great acts of daring ensued. Dives. Rolls. Tumbles from on-high from which he recovered only moments before crashing into the earth.

“What an extraordinary aviator!” exclaimed Brooke Bessesen, who was watching with her pilot-husband Kevin Steiner. “At first we didn’t notice the bird, but soon his aerobatics captured our attention and we became enthralled with his clever routine. I always love air shows, the pilots are amazing. But truth told,” Bessesen added with a chuckle, “that little guy out-maneuvered everyone!”

Eventually the barn-storming Barn Swallow gave way to the next act, dropping deftly into the grass as an enormous Air Force fighter jet shot past, afterburners aglow. Reaching mid-field with mighty speed and a thunderous roar, the jet’s military pilot gave a slight tip of his wing. Viewers who had missed the previous performer, small and unassuming as he was, may have thought the wave was for the crowd. But in fact, a reliable source confirmed the tilt was an honorable salute to the brave little swallow for his heartfelt showmanship at this year’s Oshkosh event.

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The Proof is in the Pudding

Here we are at last. After two months working with Jorge on the Osa Peninsula, eighty-two interviews with fishermen and guides, thirty days on the water, and several subsequent months of data analysis, literature reviews and writing, my project report for our multi-species marine sighting survey in Golfo Dulce is finally available for your reading pleasure. Okay, maybe it’s not for everyone, but if you are interested in the findings…

For someone who enjoys the impartial and meticulous world of science as I do, it’s exciting to garner and contribute information to the great body of knowledge from which we are all elevated. Our efforts did bring insight into Golfo Dulce’s fauna along with a few interesting surprises, like unexpectedly high numbers of Green/Black sea turtles and weird skin lesions on some of the resident Bottlenose dolphins.

In all, we logged 234 first-hand sightings, including several humpback whales, dozens of sea snakes, hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles and a slew of other marine species. You followed my blogs from the field, filled with images of the wildlife we saw. Experiencing such beauty first-hand might have seemed reason enough to do the project—the rewards of contact with the natural world are plentiful—but ultimately, Jorge and I did the endless hours of work… hauled the gear… endured the sun… because we believe in the capacity of individuals to make a difference.

“Knowledge is power,” surmised Sir Francis Bacon. Researchers strive to uncover accurate details about the world. Those details, once shared, can help people make more informed decisions. With the critical input of those local fishermen/guides and the support of Friends of the Osa, our data now adds to the understanding of Golfo Dulce and the final report may serve to enlighten discussions regarding conservation. Espero nuestros datos ayudan a proteger el futuro del golfo, I had said to Jorge at the bus station before I departed the Osa. I hope our data helps protect the future of the gulf. Knowing that is the wish of everyone who lives there, he showed me his hand, fingers crossed. Only time will tell. 

More information at

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Extending Heart and Hand to Our Animal Brothers

We are animals. This is a fact. I’m not talking about the kind of we-are-animals-yeah-yeah-now-somebody-get-a-shoe-to-squash-that-spider. But rather that swell of recognition that boils up from your gut when you stop to gaze into the inky wells of another creature and know at your core you are brethren.

I have always held reverence for the whole of nature. The way Earth spins, sunrise to sunset, and the way lava and water carve and mold the landscape, and the way trees and plants push out from the soil and stand next to us with silent confidence. Somehow the balance of heat, rainfall, oxygen and a trillion other components is so precise in its perfection that life doesn’t just subsist, it flourishes. The entire system supports animals in a rich array of shapes and sizes. Sea turtles. Bees. Whales. Us. Compassion for any animal is a direct reflection of our gratitude for this wondrous world. 

How and why we are here can be debated, but the sheer brilliance of the world and delicate complexity upon which we depend cannot. Having this big picture view of life even as a little girl, I could never seen myself as better or more valuable than another animal and I always struggled with the idea that we were created a notch above the rest. It’s true, we humans have unique and enviable abilities. Our calculating minds are a true wonder. But are they better on the universal sliding scale than, say, ants’ ability to detect chemical compounds by touch? Or birds’ ability to navigate thousands of miles by an internal compass? We’re all smart in our own ways. Must we compete? I prefer to see myself as part of a larger biological family, with a lot of very talented brothers and sisters.

We are equals, the animals and I. Certain readers may find this notion unsettling but I trust others will relate. As biomes and beasts disappear alongside trustworthly air and water, I venture to suggest our earthly salvation will require an expanding of self to fully embrace the interconnectedness of all life.  As an NPR caller named Shane said after growing up around bonobos and chimps, our closest evolutionary kin, “The membrane between me and the rest of the biological continuum is really porous”.

Indeed, Shane. Porous indeed.

photo above from

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Excerpt from my 2008 newspaper series, Underwater Ballet

Dawn broke soft and gray with a captivating hint of the Hawaiian bouquet—plumeria, ginger flower, nana-honua and orchids—swaying in my head like a slow, sensual hula. White frothy curls marked the ocean’s edge and all along the beach, tiny crabs bid adieu to the moonlight and disappeared into sand silky as powdered sugar.

Coincidentally,  my fascination with the sea began in the same Pacific waters when I was only four years old. It was during a summer visit with my father, who worked for one year as a doctor on Oahu. I still remember the first time I saw the ocean, the awesome enormity, the roiling waves of turquoise and white, the strum of some innate internal chord.

It was in those early years, watching television shows starring Jacques Cousteau from my Colorado living room that I learned about gigantic air-breathing mammals who sang heart-aching melodies from the depths of the deep blue; humpback whales, Megaptera novaeanglia, stretching up to 50 feet in length and famous for their long, fluid pectoral flippers and characteristic knobby-marked rostrums.

… from the moment I closed the back cover on Roger Payne’s poetic science chronicle, Among Whales, I longed to hear humpback music through a hydrophone. I imagined it dangling beneath me into the mystical abyss like a fishing line that would hook the songs and carry their vibrational notes to my headset above. The pace of the song is very grand and extended and appears to me to be set to the slow rhythm of the ocean swells—the rhythm of the sea, Payne wrote.

I also yearned to see humpbacks in their element. Not on the surface; I had already enjoyed many whale-watching excursions where these goliath souls sidled up to the boat, spyhopping to peek into our strange floating tub. No, I wanted to see them on their terms, under the water, where they were free to dance, unfettered, through the liquefied space.

And today, at long last, I would.

As our boat bumped across ever-changing ripples that stretched as an aqueous desert between West Maui, Lanai and Molokai, I stabilized myself on the forward deck, leaning heavily against the windshield, and scanned the horizon as I do when piloting an airplane, looking for dark specks in a seemingly endless field of blue.”

*  *  *

Hear whale song (courtesy of

Read the full articles about my underwater encounters with Humpbacks in Hawaii, Underwater Ballet: Naturalist Escapes Desert for Humpback Whale Research

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Brooke’s Cyber Expedition: Building Our Airplane N111VX

You have followed my journeys by land and by sea but I’ve also had memorable experiences aloft. That’s because my husband Kevin and I both have our pilots’ licenses and together we built an airplane. Yes, built.

working on a fuselage window in our living room

Our Velocity Elite LWFG took us 3.5 years from kit to completion and even though it’s classified as “experimental” (not built by an aircraft manufacturer), we strived to meet as many certified specs as possible. We named it Deception because of its unique paint design by renowned airbrush artist Larry Vela, which helped the airplane land several awards and magazine covers.

flying over Florida for Sport Aviation magazine

With a canard in front and engine in back, it travels at about 180mph (155kts) and carries up to four people—perfect for going places. We have winged friends to many Arizona cities as well as Las Vegas and California. And Kevin and I have flown cross-country to the likes of Florida and Vermont. 
Kevin chronicled the aviation adventure and, since we are placing our plane in the auction at Osh Kosh this summer in Wisconsin, I thought it might be fun to share with you before it’s sold. So, to wrap up Brooke’s Cyber Expedition, click to see more photos of the exotic fiberglass bird that—since 2003—has carried us, not by land nor sea but by air:

I hope you enjoyed these last two weeks of posts. Let me know if I should do more series. We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming, I mean blogging, on Friday, June 25th. See you then!

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Brooke’s Cyber Expedition: Wanna Write a Book Review?

Hey, if you have a thoughtful opinion, here’s your chance to share it! The importance of good reviews to a book’s success cannot be underestimated. And I’m told a positive ranking on Amazon (the biggest seller of books in the world, by far) is a big deal. So whenever you read a good book, one of the nicest things you can do to support the author is post your praise online. It’s easy and takes only a few minutes.


1. Go to

2. Search the title you are planning to review.

3. Under the title/author, next to the stars, click “customer review” (or the small number in parentheses), then click “Create your own review”.

4. Give the book a starred rating (five is best!) and list your review title, then write your review in the designated box.

5. Next, add tag words—words related to the book—in the designated window (this is important!).

6. Uncheck the box to receive emails when other people comment (unless you like that kind of stuff).

7. Click “Preview your review”. Then, if it looks right, click “Publish review”.

8. You will have a chance to “log in” to your Amazon account if you haven’t already, and then you may choose to post with your Real Name or a “pen name”. (You only have to do the first time.)

Your kind words can really help an author’s work find its way. If you would like to share your opinion on any of my titles, I of course encourage you. Just go to my Amazon Author Page and follow the steps above:

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