The Birthday Party

When I first started writing, it was by hand on a yellow pad, often in the lower galley of a DC10 flight to London. I was a Pan Am flight attendant and senior enough to hold the galley position away from the passengers.

Recently, I've been entering some of my early stories into the computer, mostly ones I wrote for the now defunct Miami News. Oddly, I wrote these long before it dawned on me that my job was to write about kids and their special relationships with animals.

The Birthday Party

When I lived in Miami, I was on the Board of the Tropical Audubon Society, which sponsored educational programs in the Dade County schools. I often trooped along with our educational director, David Hitzig, to watch him teach the children about our South Florida animals. 
Corn Snakes

In addition to traveling daily to schools throughout the county, Hitzig also turned birthday parties at TAS’ Doc Thomas House into a learning experience. 

The children at one party I attended ranged in age from 4 to 7. Hitzig showed them a Red-eared slider turtle, a corn snake, an alligator, and Misty, the cross-eyed opossum. The children were encouraged to pet all the animals, and loved to put their hands in Misty’s pouch.

This particular day, David was putting Misty back in her carry-cage, when I heard a little boy whisper to the child on the bench next to him, “The bald-headed eagle is next!”

Baby Red-eared Slider

Hitzig told them about eagles being the symbol of our country. He held Peace high above their heads, then lowered his arm so that Peace, for balance, spread her one full wing and the stump of her other wing.
“Did everyone see that she has only one wing?” Hitzig asked.
They nodded solemnly. Peace folded her wing and the stub and glared down at them.
“Not long ago, Peace was soaring high above the Everglades,” Hitzig told them. “On the ground, far below her, a man saw her flying. He raised the gun he was carrying, pointed it at Peace and pulled the trigger. Park rangers found her and brought her to us. I’m here today to show you what that man did to Peace. And I’m here so none of you will grow up to be the kind of person who would shoot and cripple an eagle.”

They all sat quietly for a moment and looked sadly up at the eagle. “Poor Peace,” a child said.
Hitzig thanked them and the children exploded into screams and chasing each other.

Misty lookalike
 AP Photo

One child, a pretty little blonde girl with a long braid down her back, sat very still and watched as David put Peace back in her cage, then glanced at me with sad blue eyes. It was hard for me to believe a 4-year-old  understood what David had said well enough to look as if she were going to cry. I smiled to reassure her, but she looked away.
I saw her again as I was leaving. The other children were running and chasing each other, but she stood quietly and watched. A group rushed past where she stood and one of them tagged her. She laughed, clapped her hands together, hopped a few steps, then dropped her arms, and limped on twisted legs back to her mother. 
I realized then that that little girl understood exactly what it was like to not be able to fly, but forgot for a moment that she couldn’t. She understood that the spreading of a wing and a half is as full of hope as hops on twisted legs.

That was 20 years ago, and I’m hoping that that little girl and those other children, who are now young adults, grew up remembering that birthday party, and are still fighting for the right of eagles to soar.  

Snakes in the Everglades: More than you might want to know.

 Lost in the River of Grass is based entirely on the true story of an ill-fated day-trip of my husband's into the Everglades. In the mid 1960's he took his then girlfriend for a ride in his airboat, which he  inexplicably (unless you know my husband) washed first. He removed the stern plug so the soapy water would run out, and put the plug in his jacket pocket. That's the last thought he gave to that plug until well after he and his girlfriend had been at one of the hunting camps in the 'glades for some time. By then it was too late. The airboat was right where they'd left it but only the propeller cage showed above the surface of the water.

But that's not what this is about. For Doug and his girlfriend the 3-day walk out of the Everglades was perilous enough, but things have changed. People have been releasing their over-grown pet pythons into the Everglades and now their numbers have reached almost inestimable numbers. Just last week the Miami Herald  ran a story about a 15.2 foot python eating a 76 pound deer. 

Oscar Owre, the most wonderful mentor I've ever had, taught ornithology at the University of Miami. He took a bunch of us on a hike into the Everglades that I'll never forget. (If you read my book, you won't either. So much of what I included was from that experience.) So knowing that there could be thousands upon thousands of pythons out there killing native species really breaks my heart.

Since my version of Doug's story takes place in the modern day, I included a fictionalized scene of a python eating an alligator. But it's only fiction because my characters are. It's happens all the time. And of course, the danger is not just for the native species that are now part of the python's diet. The Miami Herald article reminds parents to keep children away from "grassy thickets and water." I grew up in Florida. I lived in the water. What a tragedy this is.
Albino Burmese python
At my reading at Books and Books in Coral Gables, a young man from the Miami Museum of Science brought an albino Burmese python. It was beautiful as you can see. I'm a huge fan of snakes. There's no ick-factor for me. In fact one of my going away presents when I move from Miami to northern California was an Albion red rat snake. Her name was Rosie, and she grew to be 5 feet long and lived 9 years. I used her in educational programs that I did in the local schools. She was never a danger to anyone or anything.

Rosie look-alike

Here are a couple videos you might enjoy, or NOT.

This link is a video of an alligator and python.

This video is a excellent, but may be a little graphic if you aren't into snakes AT ALL.

I hope this isn't a before shot