My love-hate relationship with sensationalism

In my job as a wildlife educator I like to use myths and stories to highlight previous beliefs about the animals I am presenting. Stories like why the bear lack a long tail, or how the Egyptians actually used crocodiles in their temples. To be able to do my job properly I have to read and investigate these old stories and myths.
In my latest endeavour I have been trying to read up on myths, stories and historical descriptions about crocodiles, and while I was doing that I came across a book that set me ablaze.
So now I need to vent my frustration about my love-hate relationship with sensationalism.

I have scoured a few books and papers now to look for anecdotes, stories and myths about crocodiles, and there are quite a few good ones out there. Right now I am reading a paper by Dr. Simon Pooley which is called “The entangled relations between humans and Nile crocodiles c.1840-1992“. The paper is a short introduction to the relationship between humans and crocs in Africa, and the stories that follow that relationship. It is un-biased and not very exciting. Unless you have read the jaw dropping horror stories that surrounds crocs before you read Dr. Pooley’s paper. Now a question may appear, who is right? Are one side lying? Is someone hiding something, or trying to gain something? WHO should you believe?

Reading a frustrating book

The last thing I read before I read Dr.Pooleys paper was a book, actually this book;

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A book that takes aim to EXPOSE the human-wildlife conflict (HWC) in Africa. As if HWC is somehow hidden from the public eye. Okay, so I am not a fan of the title, the book may still be good.
Well, James Clarke is an english writer born in London. He has been living in Africa for more than fifty years and he has written both books and articles on african wildlife since the 1950’s. This man should be a heavyweight in this field. Nonetheless I cannot find myself to trust his writings. Throughout his book he references well-known journals, reports and scientists, but from time to time he makes bold claims without referencing to actual science other that what he believes to be true.
One example is “Lindi is a coastal town where slaves were taken in the 17th, 18th and 19th century, which suggests a genetic predisposition for man-eating that goes back to the slave trade.“. This is a paragraph that immediately follows an account from Lindi of 24 people being killed – and some eaten – by lions between 1999 and 2000. This is a claim he makes without any reference to any science on the topic. A quick search online shows that genetic studies of known man-eaters, such as the Tsavo lions, show little to none genetic difference that could explain this behaviour when compared to other lions (Panthera leo) in africa. Claiming that these lions kill humans because it is embedded in their genes is pure sensationalism and a strong contributor to further demonizing the large predators.
The author himself is not trained in natural science, but when he sometimes does feel the need to back up his claims he refers to his daughter who is a trained biologist. This makes me doubt the legality of his claims even more.

Done trashing

Now, I am not writing this to trash James Clarke. His book is actually a good read if you know that you cannot read it as if you were reading a scientific compilement of actual proven data. You have to take it for what it is. A gathering of gory events with a pinch of imagination. Read it like a novel, for fun, and you most likely find yourself enjoying the book (like I did after I figured out how to read it).
I have to admit that I am just as big of a fan of sensationalism, and I click on every link that starts with”World largest…” or “You won’t believe…”. I love the thrill of a sensational story, but I try to reflect on the contents of what I just read as well so that I do not accept lies as the truth. Good stories are an amazing way to pass time and let your imagination run wild, that is why I also love reading a good fictional book. Hence my love-hate relationship with sensationalism.
I am also not trying to say that you need to have studied natural sciences to write decent books on the subject. But as soon as you venture away from proper facts and start referring to things you believe as factual, then we have a problem.

The horrors of sensationalism

Sensationalizing an animal – especially in the case of exaggerating attacks by predators – may rob the animal of its actual identity. What do I mean by that? Well, if you constantly refer to crocodiles – as an example – as brutes and killers, the mind of the public may be swayed in the direction of believing this for a fact. If an animal is only seen for its killing power and not for its particular place in an ecosystem, we might be faced with challenges when we raise the issue of conserving the species.
A great example is Discovery Channels “Shark week” which aims to spread knowledge about this great pelagic predator, according to the network. Myrick and Evans showed in their 2014 paper “Do PSAs Take a Bite Out of Shark Week? The Effects of Juxtaposing Environmental Messages With Violent Images of Shark Attacks” that the public became more fearful of sharks after watching clips of sharks attacking prey during the shark week programming. The audience also overestimated the chance of being attacked after watching shark attacks caught on film.
The problem of creating fear is that few – if any – want to conserve what they fear. If you have a fear of spiders you will most likely not be first in line to donate money to save a species of redback spider. It is hard to see the value of a species you despise.

Fighting a losing battle

My main goal as an educator is to patch up the holes missing in peoples knowledge about predators. It is only when you understand the creature you are faced with that you can react with awe and curiosity instead of scepticism or fear.
But I am constantly walking up hill, fighting a losing battle with authors, TV-networks and social media who are constantly carpet bombing the public with sensational stories and videos of people being mauled by predators. I have seldom seen a headline where the story is how cows kill hundreds of people every year, but insert a large carnivore and people start demanding cullings.
I hope that I one day may come in a position to tell a larger crowd about the role and the history of our apex predators. Until that day I WILL be fighting my battle against the negative sensationalism of predators. And if I am able to change one persons opinion about the ecological necessity of predators a day, then I have at least won one round.

To finish this off I will add a little smile to this post:

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Looking at that beautiful smile, how can anyone not love these magnificent beings (Crocodylus niloticus)

Cheers

 

Joe

These boots were made for walking

 I must admit that I have been neglecting my home country as a travel destination, so my girl and I decided it was time to see more of Norway. So we googled “travel in Norway”, checked out some pictures, and decided to take a weekend hike to Trolltunga (The Trolls Tongue). Here is our little travel blog.

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When we (Wendy) picked out our travel destination I knew it would be a challenging hike, she on the other hand thought it would be an hours walk in semi flat terrain. I will add the TripAdvisor page for Trolltunga here so you can read other peoples account of the hike.
When Wendy realized it would be a minimum of five hours – one way – in steep mountain terrain she freaked for a second and realized she would need proper walking boots. By Wednesday she had bought and started to break in her new boots, and Friday afternoon we started our trip by driving to Odda in the Hardangerfjord in western Norway. Right after Wendy finished her shift I picked her up and we crossed the mountain plateau of Hardangervidda –  which is beautiful in itself. By nightfall we reached Odda where we rented a small room for the night. Easy enough.

The trek

The next day we got up at six A.M. and were on our way by quarter to seven. We reached the parking lot closest to the trail at seven and we started our trek at seven twenty. By seven thirty we knew we were in trouble.
The first kilometer is basically scrambling a straight ascend on a mix of rocky stairs and tree roots. The first 200 meters almost had us, but luckily we announced our travels on Facebook and could not give up so easily and face ridicule, so we scrambled on.
When we reached the one kilometer marker we knew the hard parts were over, from here it would be all smooth sailing if we would believe the online reviews. At the three kilometer marker it all started again. A steep ascend up a rocky path, several trails, and nothing that lead us towards the easiest path up.
After conquering the first two ascends the next portion of the trail was fairly easy and we actually ahd time to enjoy the hike without fearing that we would caugh our lungs out from exhaution.

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The weather was a perfect hiking mix of moderate temperatures of around 15C and overcast skies. The warmth of the sun and the cool breeze kept us fairly comfortable. The snow was melting on the peaks, and beautiful little streams appeared everywhere. This also made the trail a bit challenging in some places as the meltwater turned dirt to mud and grasslands to bogs, but that was all okay as the scenery was stunning.
We walked through mountain forest areas with short lush trees, we walked through barren mountain peaks, we walked through grassy hillsides, and we even walked through quite a bit of snow.
June must be the perfect month to hike in this area if you would like to see the mountains dressed in all sorts of colors. We will probably judge that again as we hopefully will be back in fall with a tent.

The tongue

You will not see the structure itself until it is right there in front of you. From a few kilometers away you can see a gathering of people, but the tongue is hidden between two rocky outcrops in the mountain.
When you see the tongue for the first time it is something quite special. Situated at 1100 meters above sea level and with a vertical drop of 700 meters to the lake below.
Surrounded by snowy peaks, green hillsides and the beautiful clear blue lake below it is breathtakingly beautiful.
I am not great with hights. But dammit, when I have walked for almost six hours I am not leaving without a shot of me on that ledge. And boy am I glad I went out there. The view is the best I have ever experienced, and the feeling of standing a few feet from a seven houndred meeter “splat” is awesome.
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The hard part

After spending about an hour at the structure we headed back down. We wanted to use less than five hours down so that we could be back at the parking lot by seven P.M. and reach Bergen around ten. What we did not take in to account was that the way down is just as hard, or maybe even harder than the hike up. The steep and rocky terrain takes a toll on the joints, and when you already hiked-up all your energy reserves it becomes even tougher. We managed to reach our car at eight O’clock after nearly stumbling down the last few hundred rocky steps.
In the car and pleased with our effort and the beautiful day we realized that our GPS sent us in the wrong direction – after about fourty minutes of driving…
We reached Bergen at one thirty A.M.

Oslo has a lot to learn

This was the first time any of us ever went to Bergen, and it will most definetly not be the last time. Bergen is a beautiful city by the fjord with cozy streets, a lot of history and heaps of cool street art. Growing up right outside Oslo I have always thought of Oslo as how a city is supposed to look. Gray buildings, tacky grafitty, garbage and an overall gloomy feeling. After visiting Bergen I realize that a big city (bergen being the second largest in Norway after Oslo) can also be lively and beutiful. We spent the day walking around shooting some pictures before we got in the car and drowe back over the mountains.


Traveling from the East to the West we had loads of rain, but on our way back we had clear blue skies and sun. Hardangervidda was glowing in every shade of green and yellow you could imagine.

Returning home late at night we unpacked and fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. It was a hard weekend, but all worth it.

 

Words of advice

I thought I would just end this blog with a few words of advice for anyone who might want to take on the Trolltnga hike.
– Leave early in the morning. When the weather is cooler and there are fewer people on the trail, the hike is much more enjoyable.
– Check the weather reports. The weather changes quickly in the mountain so be sure to check the reports and bring some warm clothing.
– Stay on top of the mountain in a tent or spend the next night close to Skjeggedal or Odda. Traveling all the way to Bergen after the hike was exhausting. Spare yourself the hassle and just spend one more night in the surrounding.
– Do not carry a 500mm lense unless you are there specifically to look for wildlife. It is BLOODY heavy.
– Plan a bit in advance. Do not make our mistake of planning it all in an evening, it seldom works out perfectly.

– Enjoy! Take your time and enjoy the hike. Hardanger is a beautiful spot in our little country.

 

 

Cheers

Joe

No WiFi, means no update

Sorry guys! This shoud have been up a few weeks ago. Blaming the WiFi is childish, I know, But…

A few weeks ago I mentioned in a post that I was going to travel to South Africa to attend the Crocodile Specialist Groups 24th annual working meeting. Today I arrived in Skukuza rest camp in Kruger national park.

Looking at my ticket I gulped a bit. Traveling from Flå to Skukuza would take approximately 30hours of my life away from me. I love to travel as much as the next man, but I am not a huge fan of being locked inside planes and airports for prolonged periods of time. I need to move and use my body to not go insane. But all in the name of science. And when you see monkeys and warthogs from the window of your hut the traveling is quickly forgotten.
Skukuza rest camp is the largest rest camp in the largest game reserve in Africa, Kruger national park. A national park larger than the landmass of Israel, where every corner is teeming with wildlife. I have been in the area for less than five hours, but I have already seen water buffalo, impala, a Nile crocodile, warthogs, monkeys, and a myriad of beautiful birds. My camera is going to get used a lot the coming days.

I am here to attend the CSGs 24th annual working meeting. That means that I am going to get to meet and learn from the foremost experts in the field of crocodile conservation and management in the world.
The only reason why I am here is due to dumb luck and my ability to send emails to the right people. When I were still a biology student I sent an email to an Australian researcher who was working on crocodiles, to see if he had any tips to fields of master studies I could do on crocodiles – in Norway. He had many interesting tips, but most of them required me to move to Australia, Africa, or the Americas to pursue the field. I then got hired in my current position as a zookeeper in Flå and I soon put the idea of a master’s degree behind me. When my boss announced that we were getting crocodiles at the park I once again reached out to the researcher to see if there was any way I could do some volunteer work. To make a long story short; The researcher was Grahame Webb, The chair of the Crocodile Specialist Group. He proceeded to formally invite me to the Working Meeting in Skukuza, so that I could build a network for myself and our park. I got the “go ahead” from my boss, and here I am.

I am here mainly as an observer for the park. I am here to learn as much as I can, and to extend the parks network and to build on our reputation as a serious actor in the crocodile conservation world. Our park is fairly new in keeping crocodiles, so any information we can get out hands on will benefit us greatly.
The next few days I will be attending a series of symposiums, safaris, and social gatherings of the CSG. I will have the chance to meet some of the top names in the game, and listen in on discussions of current research and management trends.
Attending this conference will only scratch the surface of a vast field of science, but we all have to start somewhere.

I will update the blog with new and pictures as I get them (and get a proper wifi connection)

Cheers

Joe

Holiday in a Flash

The last week has been colored by horrible weather reports and surprisingly good weather.

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Exploring Korfu

According to every weather app available for Android phones it should have been raining the entire week we spent on Korfu. Luckily, things did not pan out the way the online meteorologists prophesized. We managed to get through the week with only one full day of rain. Most of the days started out with clouds or slight rain, but during the day the sun came out and made the island sparkle in greens and blues.
According to the locals on Korfu – or Kerkyra as the greeks calls it – is competing with Ireland for the title of “Greenest Island in Europe”. No matter where you go you will be in lush green wilderness or gardens, spattered with different colors of wild flowers. We spent our days chasing the sun and the sights on the island in a small rental car. Cars are almost a must on this island, as the busses seem to come as they please and only travel between the larger villages. We chose the provider with the best insurance policy possible as the Greeks drive like mad men. A small car is to prefer when you drive on Korfu, we got to experience that first hand. As we were ascending a hill with a 30% slope we met a huge truck barreling down the same hill. Luckily we managed to squeeze in to someone’s narrow driveway to let the truck pass. If you ever need a car that can fit two humans and their traveling gear, and you also need to be able to put that car in your pocket, I can recommend a Volkswagen UP!
No matter what route you follow, main- or side roads, you will run in to areas where two cars can barely pass. Quite often actually. Small cars are also easier to park, and when you are in Greece you should park like Greeks, anywhere the car fits. It is kinda like cats- if it fits, it sits. And the UP! fit most places on the island.

North by North-West

We spent our first days traveling north and west on the island. We were looking for anywhere we could soak up some sun before traveling back to the freezing temperatures of northern Europe. There are heaps of small bays and secret getaways around the north-east coast, and if you get out of your car to stroll along the roads you often come across small paths leading down to a beach or a rocky outpost. These are small fortresses of solitude, free from tourists and sounds of traffic.
Korfu has a long history and many sights that bear witness of that. There are a bunch of fortresses, castles, ruins, museums, archeological sites, and other attractions worth a visit. The Achilleon is a perfect example. Built by the empress of Austria between 1889 and 1891, it has served as the imperial family’s residence, as well as a casino for the rich and powerful. It is a magnificent building with marble columns, oil paintings and sculptures to add to its grandeur. Today it functions as a museum.
If you decide to travel along the small inland roads on Korfu you better be prepared to get lost. We bought a travel book and a decent map before we arrived on the island, but I have never been as lost as I was during this holiday. Regardless of a great map and a great navigator – Wendy – we could not seem to find the quickest or shortest route to any destination we decided on. But that did not really bother us as there are worse places to get lost. Getting lost on Korfu only gives you the opportunity to see all the cozy little villages and bays you would not get to see otherwise. And the island is only so large that if you do mess up, there is ALWAYS a sign pointing you towards the capitol.
Small side note; Do not trust the signs. Sometimes they point towards where you want to go, only to change direction at the next intersection. Sometimes the signs are only posted in Greek. Sometimes the signs only occur at one of the side-roads of an intersection. And other times the sign is just missing. If you are determined to not get lost I guess a navigation system is the safest bet – although I would not completely trust those either in Greece.

Zen – The Stalker

In addition to the cultural sights of the island, the island I also filled with street cats and dogs that stroll around without a leash. If you are not too concerned about hygiene and disease – or if you have had all possible shots – most of the animals are very comfortable with being fed and pet. Many will actually walk straight up to you and sit next to you on whatever you sit on. Now, do not be a fool and pet an animal you do not know, unless you and the animal feel comfortable about it. It is kinda like a date; Take it slow and give yourselves some time to develop a trusting relationship, then you can enjoy cuddles together. If you move too fast you might end up with something short and exciting that results in bite- and claw marks.


At the beach in Dassia, close to where we stayed, we met Zen. Zen is a dog that resembles a brown Labrador, except from his legs which are oddly short. Wendy wanted to rename him Odin (we have been watching Vikings lately), but we kept to his name that we found on the tag on his collar. He must be the strangest dog I have met. We were strolling along the beach when we met him. As soon as he saw us he started acting as if we were taking him for a walk, walking where we walked, sitting down where we sat. We passed a local tavern where the waiter explained that Zen was the beach dog, and that he spent his days strolling up and down the beach together with the tourists. He has a collar and a home, but the beach is his domain. Zen kept following us, and it all turned quite stalkerish. He stayed close, but not close enough to touch. He kept an eye on us, but we got no response if we called him. And when we were going home, he would not leave us alone. At one point it got so bad that we actually tried to outrun him. Yes, two humans trying to outrun and hide from the dog who is stalking them. To end his obsessive behavior, we had to come up with a plan to fool the little bugger. Wendy decided to lure him down an alley with an exit at the other end. In the meanwhile, I went and got the car. I am not proud of the next part of our plan, but it had to be done. As Zen was busy peeing on something, I rushed in and Wendy jumped into the car, then we rushed off, leaving the confused dog heading for some other hoomans. A surge of guilt crept over the both of us, but the guilt quickly resided when we saw him tailing a new mark. Guess we were not all that special after all.

Bad planning makes great memories

What we did not know when we booked our trip was that it was the Dutch May holiday and the Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations at the same time. As we were to fly out from Schiphol after visiting family our tickets were a lot pricier than if we had flown from Norway due to the holiday. When we landed we were informed that most of the shops would be closed for five out of the seven days we had on the island, all due to Easter and labor day perfectly landing on the same week. The only options for any shopping would be the over-priced tourist markets in the capitol, or the minimarket who sells beer and chips to the tourists. Lucky for us, we were more interested in seeing the island than shopping cheap leather and local kumquat liquor.
The main celebrations took place in the private homes of the Greeks, but we joined in on the public processions in the capitol on the Saturday after good Friday. The streets were packed with people. So packed that we did not really get to see the bones of the patron saint of Korfu. I tried to hold the camera high enough to catch some picture at least, but that only gave me the patron shiny head of some middle aged Greek guy. No luck there.
The processions in Korfu city holds a special place in Greek culture, and a lot of main land Greeks had taken the ferry to the island to get in on the festivities. We also met a whole bunch of Irish and British cars and tourists, most likely Orthodox who took the trip for the celebrations.
The procession in Korfu ends with a rather different ritual. The throwing of ceramic pots. When the main parade is over you can see red ceramic carafes and pots in almost every window surrounding the churches squares. The carafes and pots are filled with water, and when the bells ring at eleven they all throw them from the window and down to the excited crowds. My trusted camera-woman did not expect it to be as loud as it was, so most of the pictures became quite blurry or non-existent as she dove for cover. When all the ceramics have been thrown the crowds gather to pick up some pieces for god fortune. That we DID get a picture of.


It was quite the experience to hear the sound of falling pots travel through the city until it reached the square where we stood. If you ever travel to Greece during their Easter Celebrations I urge you to attend their celebration, it is something special.

All holiday’ed up

Our last days were spent driving the southern part of the island – which were pretty much dead due to the lack of tourists – and relaxing with our books. The weather worsened the last two days, which resulted in massages at one of the islands spas and a trip to Korfu city for some Easter lamb and shopping.
We also planned to go looking for some reptiles, but the cold weather put a stop to that. All I managed to catch in my lens were the blue-throated keeled lizard (Algyroides nigropunctatus), and not even that picture turned out any good. I did however spot a few cool birds, yet again, when I did not have my camera at hand…

Now we are packing our bags before we have to head to the bus to the airport tomorrow morning. We are flying Back to the Netherlands for a few days before we return to work and everyday life in Norway.
There are some things I will miss about Greece. The food, the winding roads to hidden beaches, the people, and Mittens. Mittens greeted us on our very first morning by joining us for breakfast. She would later join us for pretty much every meal or drink consumed at the hotel. Mittens is expecting a litter of kittens and is most likely due any day now – Oh, did I mention that Mittens is a cat? We have dubbed her our holiday-cat, and she is a precious one.
Even if we did not get all the sun and warmth we hoped for, we had a great holiday. Loads of memories and stories for family and friends are coming home with us.
If you ever consider traveling to the Greek islands I can assure you that will not regret choosing Korfu, especially if you enjoy some hiking and spending time in nature.

 

Cheers

 

Joe

When Bacon moved in

The past few weeks just flew by. I did not even have time to be bored. Not even once!

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“Do you dare hold a snake?”

I am a huge fan of having some time to be bored. Whether it is over a boring task, or just for some time to think, I need some down time to function. It is not like I love to be lazy, not at all. I spend my down time relaxing, thinking and planning (not that my plans are all that magnificent due to my “private down time”), trying to figure out…. Well, stuff..
But the last few weeks just disappeared, and that means that I have not been thinking for a full week, barely functioning.

Living with royalty
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As I am writing I am also looking at a pig who is cuddling up against my heater. Yes, a pig. His name is Bacon – or to be exact – Sir Francis Bacon. He is a miniature pig who belongs to my colleague. When she went on a holiday I became the dad of a three-month old miniature vacuum cleaner. All day he walks around with his nose to the ground, picking up whatever the real vacuum cleaner missed.
What I have learned from this experience? You need a lot of patience if you want to get a pet pig. House training a pig is quite a challenge, these guys are some stubborn little bastards. He will look you straight in the eye and make unload a puddle of pee capable of drowning a medium sized city. Then he will stand back and  watch as you clean it up. And cleaning up pee seems to be my main task this week. With someone the size of an American football who pees quantities only matched by the Victoria falls, the paper towls are applied in an unsustainable rate.
He pees a bit more on the floor, plays a bit with his ball, and the keels over next to the heater for a nap. Being a piggy parent is hard work, but usually very delightful.
No day is never the same when you work in a zoo!
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To school or not to school?

Last week we had performance and development discussions at the zoo. After my chat with the coordinator at the park I started thinking about ways to develop my career and my skill set. Now I am back to researching my options for further studies. I would like to find a relevant study which I can do while I work at the zoo. A proper online study or a study that requires me to do most of the work from home would be perfect.
Then there is the field of study. Should I do economics? Or management? Or communications? Or more biology? Conservation maybe?
No matter what I land on, I want it to be relevant for me and my future career. No matter what I decide on, I want to contribute to helping animals in some way. Some people who I call my friends tell me that the best way for me to help the animals is to stop talking to them, like I am some kind of maniac…
I guess I have some thinking to do.

Now the laws just have to change

Getting reptiles at the park has been a dream come true.
My story with reptiles has been as follows; I loved them as a kid. I knew loads of species by common and scientific name, I knew where they lived, what they ate, and how the functioned. Then I grew up and became deathly afraid of them. Seeing them as the creepiest and scariest animals out there. When I actually became an adult – which is often under discussion – I found back to some of my childhood fascination for these magnificent animals.
After working with them for a few weeks I cannot stop myself from wanting reptiles as pets. Too bad they are illegal in Norway… Oh yes…
In 1977 a law was passed that banned reptiles as pets in Norway. The fear of ecological disaster and poor animal welfare are key arguments for maintaining the law. The enthusiasts on the other hand, are working hard to re-legalize reptiles as pets. My own position on the matter is colored by the fact that I am fascinated by snakes ad reptiles. I want them to be legalized so that I can keep them myself. Monitor lizards and corn snakes has to be the most perfect animals to keep.

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But for now I have the pig. And a girlfriend who is not snake compatible. I managed her to get used to living with a filthy zookeper though, so I am clinging to a hope that she will warm up to reptiles one day as well.

Until I decide to write again… Cheers

Joe

PS: I am considering writing a “species of the week” column. It is not a promise, but it would help me update a bit more often 🙂