Thinking About Water

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The topic of water has been coming at me in many forms these last weeks.

A list:

  • a stirred interest in water sources for the area’s rivers and streams (since my relocation to Davis)
  • California’s new water conservation laws
  • phantom sprinklers on my property, watering plants in a shut-down system
  • an article about border patrol agents in Arizona destroying emergency water supplies in the desert
  • a request by a neighbor for donations of water for the homeless
  • an article about the water cycle and the origins of water on earth
  • astounding statistics about our use of water (i.e. 5.7 billion gallons a year flushed down toilets in America)
  • accidentally leaving a hose running for half an hour

When I think about the ubiquitousness of water I am reminded of something Charles Fishman wrote in his book The Big Thirst (p. 2): Water is the most familiar substance in our lives.  It is also unquestionably the most important substance in our lives.

Over the next weeks I shall begin to look at water from this standpoint.


Back to the Basics: Ocean Ethics

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I received an email from Edward last week in response to the 4Ocean plastic cleanup blog of June 7. In it he talked about the multi-layered issues associated with ocean pollution and cleanup.

Ecologic impact, for one. “The establishment of the 4Ocean business plan, while admirable,” he wrote, “doesn’t in itself solve the ecological impact of the ever-increasing amounts of trash in the ocean or along it’s shores.”

These effects are enormous. Large numbers of marine wildlife are being harmed, many killed, through ingestion of small bits of plastic and other trash mistaken for food. Starvation. Poisoning. Internal bleeding and digestive illnesses.  These are a few of the direct attacks on those creatures of the sea who eat trash.

Another direct impact on sea life comes from fishing boats that discard their gear and their damaged nets into the ocean, bringing about a situation called ‘ghost fishing.’ In a bizarre way, this flotsam floating around continues to ‘fish’ as it traps marine life within its grip and, consequently, reels in larger predators that come to feed on the trapped fish.

Indirectly, pollution that brings about an imbalance in the ocean’s ecosystem – marine habitat destruction, for example – can put us all at risk. As described by the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN), Oceans are the lifeblood of planet Earth and humankind. They flow over nearly three-quarters of our planet, and hold 97% of the planet’s water. They produce more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and absorb the most carbon from it. So it would appear that we have a personal interest in getting the ocean back into tiptop shape.

And then Edward wrote about the business community.  “Ridding the ocean of massive accumulations of trash must begin with changing the business practices of the world’s maritime industry as a major polluter,” he said.

I know we started out talking about plastic.  But with Edward’s challenge I became curious about the laws associated with maritime dumping, what is considered a pollutant, what not.  How is it monitored?  I shall not attempt to summarize this complex topic. But I thought you might be interested in reading the following list of items considered, under the law, acceptable for ocean dumping.

Help me out here.  I don’t get how some of these are not considered pollutants.

The London Protocol (of 2006) expressly prohibits incineration at sea and the export of wastes and other matter for the purpose of ocean dumping. Under the London Protocol, dumping of all wastes and other materials is prohibited except the following materials listed in Annex I of the London Protocol (“the reverse list”), which may be considered for dumping: 

  • Dredged material.
  • Sewage sludge.
  • Fish wastes or material resulting from industrial fish processing operations.
  • Vessels and platforms or other man-made structures at sea.
  • Inert, inorganic geological material.
  • Organic material of natural origin.
  • Bulky items primarily comprising iron, steel, concrete and similarly unharmful materials for which the concern is physical impact, and limited to the circumstances where such wastes are generated at locations with no land-based alternatives.
  • Carbon dioxide streams from carbon dioxide capture processes for sequestration in sub-seabed geological formations.

Given the vastness of the ocean and the immeasurable number of private and commercial ocean-going vessels, can we suspect that all are virtually free to pollute the ocean? A kind of guilty until proven innocent situation?

After all, laws can be made. Satellites can be launched. Ecology patrols can swarm the beaches and monitoring crews can board ships. But in the end it appears that this is a self-monitoring, voluntary honor system; that once again we are down to right and wrong. To ethics.




Learn Baby Learn

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In psychology, learning is commonly defined as ‘a relatively permanent change in behavior based on experience.’

Isn’t that remarkable.

Learning is not only about changes in the amount of information stored in your brain. Nor is it only determined by changes in how you feel about a subject or how you perceive it. Rather, while both of these contribute to the learning process, it’s the change in behavior that signals that learning has actually taken place.

When it comes to how people treat nature, I’ve always wondered which techniques would be most effective in changing negative behaviors. How do you get a sensation seeker to stop driving a truck into a meadow? How do you instill an ecologic ethic in someone who believes all of nature belongs to humans? Is it enough to explain the workings of a meadow, or to call on feelings such as empathy, to encourage respect and responsibility towards the environment?

Last week a friend sent me a video about two guys who, while surfing in Bali, discovered the beaches were littered with plastic debris. When they asked why the trash had not been removed, they were told that every day the beach is cleaned and every day the waves and tides deposit new litter on the shore.

After considering the situation, they came up with a business plan called 4Ocean, which is a method for helping remove plastic from the sea. In Bali they hired local fishermen to haul plastics and other debris out of the ocean with their nets and bring the trash to shore, where it is prepared for recycling and dumping.

Since their experience in Bali, they have expanded their operation to twenty-six countries around the world, using the Bali approach of hiring local people to do the work.  To date, they claim to have removed almost eight hundred thousand pounds of plastic and other debris from the ocean and its shores.

The person who sent me the video suggested there might be some incidental learning about caring for the environment among those involved in the clean-up, a kind of transference of information from the ocean to all of nature.

That’s an interesting idea.

Incidental learning is very common. It is unintentional and unplanned, and it happens when we are involved in one thing and then extrapolate to another. Incidental learning allows us to gain new perspectives on an old idea or a familiar situation. It’s natural. Unforced. And, it’s personal, often occurring during hands-on experiences.

And here is where it would appear that the 4Ocean model offers a great opportunity for those involved in the project to incidentally learn that they are part of something greater than ocean clean-up. I mean,  4Ocean is operating in twenty-six countries. Imagine how many people are being touched directly and indirectly by this awesome and potentially mind-altering process.

According to experiential learning theory, as developed by David Kolb in 1984, however, one of the essentials for learning is that a person has to reflect on his experience.  It’s through these reflections that the individual is able to develop a new perspective about the situation, can internalize  something new, realize something incidental.

It’s not clear that reflection can be taught, however. And, it’s not clear that a person could explain his reflections, even to himself. Also, 4Ocean does not have the capacity, nor the mission, to encourage incidental learning associated with their operation.

So the question remains about developing techniques for changing negative behaviors towards nature. If experiential learning can spawn reflection that has the power to incidentally transform perception and ultimately change behavior, how can that be implemented in environmental education?







You Gotta Love ‘Em. Really?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I received the following email from a friend after she read the post Danger! Danger!

The animal world can also be cruel.  I once heard some scrub jays making a racket in a bush.  I snuck up and peered into the thicket and there were 10-13 scrub jays screaming, and on the ground was a scrub jay all bloodied.  As I continued to watch, some of the scrub jays would jump down to the bloodied scrub jay and peck at it.  Not sure what I was watching. I thought maybe they were trying to get him to get up, but as I continued to watch I realized they were attacking one of their own, pecking at it and killing it.  It was a communal execution…. was all I could think.  I could not continue to watch (it was horrible) and went away.  Came back about an hour later and the bird on the ground was dead.  Soooo weird.  Ever since then I look at scrub jays as killers!

I have to admit, this story of mob murder of a jay by jays really shook me up. ‘Cruel’ certainly seems like an apt term. I tried to find out whether this occurs normally, but I found nothing about this type of behavior amongst jays.

Was it just an anomaly?

I did find out that jays are aggressive by nature and will engage in mob intimidation when they feel threatened or when they perceive a breach of their territory by other birds. Also, they have been known to kill young birds and to steal birds’ eggs, but that is all part of the hunt, not a social act. Plus, there is some evidence that this behavior does not occur with any frequency.

Ornithologist and editor of Audubon Magazine, Les Line, cited a study from the early twentieth century that found only 6 out of 530 blue jay stomachs had traces of eggs and young birds. “Mainly,” Line wrote, “the omnivorous blue jays feast on insects, nuts, berries, seeds, and now and then small animals like deer mice, bats, lizards, and tree frogs.”

A more recent look at the extent to which jays rob nests and kill young birds comes from Tom Gardali of Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) Conservation Science in West Marin County. He believes that jays do not contribute significantly to the death of young birds or the depletion of eggs. “Most nest camera studies,” he says, “show that corvids [jays are a type of corvid] are relatively minor nest predators — snakes seem to be the stars.”

Jays are extremely intelligent and in Gardali’s words, “stunningly observant.” In the course of conducting their study the research team discovered that the jays can learn to spot and follow an ornithologist on the way to study a bird nest, “in anticipation of a tasty bird egg or baby bird treat.” Researchers at PRBO have had to learn how to outsmart the jays when they head off to study sites, to make sure they are not being followed by the crafty birds.

But many folks really hate blue jays, and numbers and statistics cannot erase the antipathy they feel towards the jay’s bullying and aggression.

Line believes that the bad rap for the blue jay might have had its beginning in 1831 when ornithologist and bird illustrator John J. Audubon wrote in his Ornithological Biography, “Who could imagine that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!” In the mid-20th century, a photographic plate of Audubon’s illustration of three jays sucking eggs “pilfered from the nest of some innocent dove or harmless partridge,” was reproduced on calendars and handed out widely by insurance companies.  This, according to Line helped foment blue jay hatred.

Can a jay-hater be swayed from his aversion to the bird by learning that they are loving mates and devoted parents? That they are considered to be among the most intelligent species? That they can solve problems? Could the loathing they feel be assuaged by knowing that the jay seed caching practice, called scatter hoarding, has played an important ecological role in the proliferation of oak and pine forests?*

It’s hard to tell. These days, we are being challenged in so many areas to examine our prejudices and to become more accepting. Probably the blue jay is way down on the priority list as an object of concern. But imagine. It could be a good place to start.

*In scatter hoarding, the jay creates many small hoards of seeds and disperses them over a large area. Inevitably, many of the seeds will be left, contributing to the chance of germination.

Here is a copy of the title page of Audubon’s book:

Danger! Danger!

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A couple of days ago I was awakened around four in the morning to a chorus of crows calling in a tree outside my window. The caw, caw was loud and, to my astonishment, in unison. The racket continued for about five minutes and then, without any discernable reason, it stopped – again, as one voice.

I later found out that April-May is nesting time for crows in this region. Crows are known for their communal behaviors, and in particular, in their practice of ganging up to ward off a threatening presence. Possibly the cacophony outside my window was a call of alarm to intimidate an owl or some other predator that was threatening a nest.

In the days following this experience, I thought about language and about how communication can be so essential to a group’s survival. It occurred to me that this capacity to use sound as a symbol of something else is obviously not exclusive to humans. Other species also make use of vocalizations to inform their group members about conditions in their environment, in this case a communal sound of alarm in response to a menace.

In 1980 a group of biologists observed vervet monkeys in Africa and discovered that the monkeys not only verbalized danger, but their calls were acoustically unique, depending on the predator. Each alarm brought about different responses. A warning about a leopard would send the monkeys running into the trees. To an eagle alarm, all would look up.  A snake alarm, they would look down. The researchers concluded that vervet alarm calls function to designate different classes of external threats.

  Vervet Monkeys

Another area of interest for researchers is to determine to what extent, if at all, interspecies communication occurs. Can there be a sharing and understanding of information between two or more species?

The best opportunity to look at this is with our pets, starting with dogs.

Human to dog exchanges occur in myriad ways. A whistle brings the dog home. Verbal commands are given and the dog responds. You cry and the dog comes and lays at your feet. Dog to human verbalizations come in the form of barks and growls and yips and cries. Through these sounds you know if the dog is angry, frightened, or happy. The dog makes a sound, and you respond.

Cats, being more aloof than dogs, are harder to read, and they only respond to verbal commands when they want. I did have two experiences with my cats, however, that I view as examples of interspecies warnings.

The first was when I was evacuated during a wildfire. I had received a robo call warning that I had ten minutes to get out of my house. I almost had to leave one of my cats when she scratched her way out of my grip as I was putting her into her carrier. She ran and hid under a couch and I couldn’t coax her out. Not even her favorite treat grabbed her attention. I moved the couch, and she moved with it. I begged her to come out. In desperation, I walked out of the room thinking I would have to leave her. Then back into the room and one last try. In my most authoritarian voice I called out, you’ve got to come out, now! And she did. Like an obedient puppy dog, she walked right up to me.  I popped her into her carrier with no trouble and we were gone.

The other experience was with a very verbal male cat who warned me of a problem. I had finished washing the dishes and was sitting in the living room. This cat kept running back and forth between the living room and the kitchen, meowing in what seemed like a stress call. I followed him into the kitchen and found I had left the water running just a slight bit.  Somehow he had figured out this was not right.  So I turned the water faucet off and that was that. He went on his way unperturbed.

Life is full of surprises.

A Poem and a Bee Story


Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

  1. The poem: A friend sent me this recording of a reading of the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth,” by Maya Angelou, and I wanted to share it with you.

(To hear the reading, click on the red dot.)

You can read the article associated with this reading in the online, weekly, free literary newsletter, Brain Pickings.

2. A Bee Story:  (for some reason the volume is turned off on this video, but you can turn it on from the volume icon.)

Woman Becomes Best Friends With A Bee She Rescued

When she found an injured bee in her garden, this woman took her in and was surprised when she got so attached to her. Today on Soulmates, watch how Bee and her mom developed such an unusual, special bond ❤️️❤️️❤️️

Posted by Soulmates on Sunday, May 13, 2018

I came across this video in the Reality Unbound website, which founder Lisa Christie describes as a space for creating community and sharing psychic and spiritual experiences and practices of many kinds, and reflecting on the implications of these experiences for ourselves and the world in which we live. 

Response from Readers: Take 2

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The topic of animal testing for research continues to generate strongly felt responses from readers.

This post begins with a comment from Willa Bass of Coarsegold. Her statement is followed by an outline of several of the major pro- and con- animal testing arguments.

Here is what Willa had to say:

I find it difficult to follow the logic of those against the use of lab animals for medical, drug and other health research. I am not sure how such research would progress without them. Is there just a desire for a different set of rules?   Or is it a desire to altogether stop such research?

I worked at the Jimmy Fund (Children’s Cancer Research Foundation) in Boston …in labs where rats and mice are routinely used to test chemotherapy drugs, and potential mutagenic compounds….the reason being their systems are close to the human system.  Also spent time at Washington U in St. Louis when we did research on leukemia using mice.  Is this thoughtless and cruel?  Are you willing to let research go that has saved many human lives? 

We did our best to be quick and efficient in any procedures, so animals were not caused undue suffering….but animals were killed to get results.  None of us liked to do that, but the pervading understanding was that this was to save or at least help children. 


Virtually every medical therapy in use today – including drugs, vaccines, surgical techniques, devices such as pacemakers and joint prostheses, radiation therapy – owes its existence, at some level, to animal testing.

In the following article you can read details about the advances made in twenty-six areas of medical practice that came about due to animal testing.

Animal Testing and Research Achievements


The results can be dangerous:

Example 1: Thalidomide (a drug to treat morning sickness) does not cause birth defects when given to pregnant rats and mice, but in humans it caused an international epidemic of birth defects, including severe limb malformations, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Example 2: TGN1412, a drug designed to treat leukaemia. Tested successfully in monkeys. Tested on six healthy young men in the first phase of clinical (human) trials in 2006, they immediately developed fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. Within hours, they were in an intensive care unit with multiple organ failure.

Example 3: Fialuridine, developed to treat people with hepatitis B, tested well in mice, rats, dogs, woodchucks and primates. Human trial in 1993 caused seven people to develop liver failure. Five died and the other two were saved through liver transplants.

The following  is a list  of anti-testing arguments from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals):

1.       More than 90 percent of basic science discoveries from experiments on animals fail to lead to human treatments.

2.       Eighty-nine percent of animal studies could not be reproduced.

3.       NIH admits that 95 percent of all drugs that are shown to be safe and effective in tests on animals fail in human trials because they don’t work or are dangerous.

4.       Experiments on animals divert time and funding from better methods.

5.       While there are several reasons why experimentation using animals can’t reliably predict human outcomes, the most significant issue is the vast physiological differences between species.

6.       Compounding the problem, these experiments siphon economic and intellectual resources from research that is relevant to human disease and could lead to cures and treatments.

7.      Reliable, economical non-animal methods are available for a wide variety of testing applications, including antibody production, skin irritation and sensitization, eye irritation, endocrine disruption, and tobacco product development and testing.

Recently PETA took out an ad which focuses on the economics of animal testing.


Response From Readers

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I have received many responses to the posts on treatment of laboratory animals, some in direct emails and some as comments on the posts themselves. Animal abuse, of any kind, is apparently a subject that stirs people deeply.

I have included here several comments by readers.  I hope you enjoy these, and perhaps will be moved to respond also.

Shloime Perel, who lives in Montreal, refers to the abuse of animals as heartbreaking.  He cited a biblical passage in which a donkey is beaten several times by his owner, Balaam (Numbers 22:21-29): “What have I done to you to make you beat me three times?” the donkey asks. At that moment Balaam  sees an angel in the path before him and he ceases mistreating his donkey.

Unlike the donkey in the story, animals cannot protest for themselves. They need an intermediary to speak for them.  We need to be that angel, Shloime wrote in an email.  Someone has to protest for the animals.   

One protester is artist Marcia Rajnus Goldberg, also from Montreal.  The artist imagines a world in which no primates will ever have to submit to cruel laboratory testing aimed at finding out such things as how much diesel fuel or nicotine it takes to kill a primate – actual research she read about in the newspaper. In this painting of a chimpanzee, Marcia has placed him in a jungle where he will live under the care of primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall.

I painted that chimpanzee in the tree for a friend who fell sick in Nagaland, India where she saw monkeys and other wildlife. It was there that she came down with a superbug that collapsed her lung.  Four months later she’s pulling for her life, and this painting will be hers when she gets home (is hers, wherever her home will be).

It’s almost as if Marcia is saying that art can bring about change, art can help heal.

The next item  was sent by Joseph Frank of Oakhurst.


Do animals feel pain? Joe wrote. Of course they do.  Is compassion a universally accepted moral value? Unfortunately it is not. The ultimate and earnest wish, manifest in the Buddha, both as archetype and as historical entity, is to relieve the suffering of all living beings everywhere.

This photo reminds me of a scene in the film Seven Years in Tibet, a story about the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer who lived in Tibet between 1944 and 1951.  In the film, when Harrer is asked by the then young Dalai Lama to build a theater, the Buddhist workers refuse to excavate the site until a colony of worms is removed and relocated to safety.

Would we do the same thing for a worm, those squiggly, dirty creatures that turn our stomachs? Did you ever watch someone bait a hook with a live worm? Have you ever heard anyone protest?

And what about spiders? I think of the revulsion commonly directed towards them, how we have learned to fear them and casually stomp on them.

How does that happen?  We sing The Itsy-Bitsy Spider with our three-year-olds. It gives us joy to watch the little ones trying to figure out the thumb-to-pointer twist of the fingers.

But this song is not a simple finger game. This is a celebration of nature’s resilience through the changing seasons. The spider climbs up the water spout, gets washed down by the rain, then continues his climb when the sun appears.

Why can’t we teach the ecological lesson – forget about the finger dexterity. That will come as the child’s brain matures. There’s something more important in that song.

Why can’t we  teach children to appreciate the importance of spiders, feel compassion for them in their struggle to survive?  Why, rather than run in fear from spiders or crush them under their feet, can children not learn to trap the ones that enter their homes and relocate them outdoors, where they belong?

And finally, what does it say about our idea of teaching and learning when  we focus on our child’s hand movements and ignore the spider in that song?





Dogs, Mice, Cats, Rats


Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Do dogs understand their suffering and pain more acutely than mice? Do cats grieve over forced isolation and cruel treatment more than rats?

Does it matter?

Yes, it matters, because how we view an animal can have a big effect on how we treat it.

Which brings me to my real question:

In framing the law that was passed in 1966 on the treatment and care of laboratory animals in this country, were the policy makers  influenced by their belief in the presence or absence of an animal’s capacity for subjective feeling and experience, its sentient abilities?

If the provisions of the Law, the United States Federal Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (AWA), and its amendment of 2002 are to be taken at face value, then the answer to that question is yes.

In both the AWA and its amendment, mice and rats, along with birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, are explicitly excluded from federal protection against abuse during scientific research. In fact, it appears that they were considered non-animals, not even worthy of consideration. Those animals specified for protection in the AWA are dogs, cats, monkeys, non-human primates, guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits.  In other words, cuddly pets and cousins.

According the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), ninety-nine percent of the millions of animals currently undergoing laboratory study in this country are those that have been excluded from protection under the AWA. It seems that this could only have come about if laws were written with the assumption that these animals do not have the capacity to suffer, or at least cannot grasp what is happening to them.

We need to take the pain and suffering of ‘less intelligent’ animals very seriously, wrote Marc Bekoff , co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As a cognitive ethologist, Bekoff studies the influence of conscious awareness on an animal’s behavior in its natural environment. It is possible that some animals experience pain and suffering in ways that we cannot yet imagine, Bekoff stated. They may act differently than we do, but still can feel pain.


I’m including here some links that might be of interest to readers:  Details about alternatives to animal testing.  Interesting article refuting alternatives to animal testing.    This is Marc Beckoff’s Op-Ed Piece


This Will Be Short

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Last week I got derailed by an article I received about abuses in some primate research laboratories around the country. Three days of searching the Internet, watching horrendous videos and slogging through the morass of information related to abusive animal research left me disheartened and downright exhausted.

I’ve mulled over how to write about this, and have decided I won’t. The whole question of using animals for research is extremely complicated and fraught with controversy. There are animal rights groups and advocates out there working to right this terrible wrong. As an example, the investigations discussed in the article I cited above were brought about by pressure from such groups.

For me, if there is to be animal research, the solution to the problem of cruelty lies in ethical and moral behavior, in our recognition of our connection to all living beings, and in our capacity for empathy and compassion.

In a future post I will write about laboratory animal caregivers who are compassionate and caring, sometimes to their own detriment.

 2018 theme: End Plastic Pollution

Here’s an article about eliminating single use plastic containers.