This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rescued from Highway Median Strip, Athena Thrives

Norton farm shelters animals and a shy goddess

NORTON - She was a shaggy brown mess when first brought to her new home at Winslow Farm Animal Sanctuary this past winter, not to mention completely antisocial, unwilling to get close not only to humans, but also most other animals.

But now the sheep, dubbed Wandering Woolie when she was found - but renamed Athena after the Greek goddess of wisdom, by sanctuary owner Debra White - is assimilating nicely at her new digs. It is a far cry from where she’d spent an estimated year and a half - the median strip between Interstate 95 and Interstate 495 in Foxborough.

Shorn clean of her thick wool earlier this summer, she’s now taking food from the palms of her handlers, White said, and gets along with other creatures at the sanctuary, which hundreds of abandoned and abused animals have called home since 1996.

“She’s doing amazingly well, where I thought it would take a year to get close to her. She’s eating out of my hand, as long as I squat down,’’ White said. “And when she got sheared, the shearer said she was the best-behaved of four others she sheared that day.’’

Athena’s progress is remarkable considering where she was found, on the median strip between two of the area’s busiest highways before being noticed and eventually captured by North Attleborough resident Linda Faber, who spearheaded the effort with volunteers and the Animal Rescue League of Boston. No one is sure of Athena’s age, but it is estimated by her wool that she had been roaming the strip for up to 18 months.

And no one is sure how she got there, though White has her theory: that the sheep had fallen off a truck on the way to the slaughterhouse. “She was probably on her way to being a leg of lamb, but luckily she fell off,’’ she said at the sanctuary nestled in the woods near Meadowbrook Pond, with peacocks squawking nearby and horses grazing in a wide enclosure.

That the sheep survived is remarkable, White said, foraging for food with no shelter and no one to shear the heavy coat she wore for two summers.

“In the beginning, I offered her branches of leaves and pine needles because this was the sort of thing she survived on being on the highway,’’ she said.

That gave way to the regular grain and hay she now gobbles eagerly, White said, and occasionally from human hands. “Our morning feeder, Heidi Medas, at our special-needs barn where Athena was housed, was the first one to actually touch her,’’ she said. “Heidi has a calm energy about her that’s so important to the well-being of animals who are unsure of humans.’’

White created Winslow Farm 12 years ago, after working three jobs for 17 years with hardly a day off to finance the nonprofit. The land had been her family’s; she was raised nearby, in a goat shed, she said with a laugh. Her father, David Sheldon White, was an engineer and developed Parkinson’s disease in his late 20s. Because of his illness, the family eventually lost the property that White has since bought back and has slowly added to over the years.

The sanctuary ( has grown since 1996, when it opened as a petting zoo. Now home to about 300 animals, it hosts educational programs, tours, and such events as Renaissance and psychic fairs. A recent addition was a sprawling wooden playground.

Another recent addition: a 300-pound pig from Berkley that belonged to a girl who got it as a piglet and whose family realized they couldn’t care for it when it matured but refused to sell it for slaughter.

On a recent hot summer day at the sanctuary, Athena meandered among other animals, including a brilliantly hued peacock, chickens, and other sheep. She warily moved away when approached by a human she didn’t know, allowing herself to be photographed only from afar.

Athena arrived at Winslow Farm about the same time last winter as Gulliver, a 200-pound Toggenburg goat that was found wandering in Middleborough. For a short time, the two animals shared the same stable at the Animal Rescue League facility in Dedham, and when they were brought to Winslow Farm together, they were friendly only to each other.

Now, said White, Gulliver is far more outgoing, “running from one end of the farm to the other, kicking his heels and romping with his friends while Athena stands in the distance and observes.’’

The sheep now lives in a barn with others of her species, she said - three other farm sheep, Clover, Enya, and Lilly.

“And, of course, Gulliver is nestled in there, too, being one big happy family here,’’ White said.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Birds Making a Comeback on Unlikely Urban Beaches

Tern Style - Birds find a comfortable home on Winthrop’s shore

By cary.shuman

The images of these Least Tern birds were captured by the eagle eye of resident George Mclean. The birds have found a home on Winthrop and Yirrell beaches this summer, a pleasant surprise to birding experts.

The images of these Least Tern birds were captured by the eagle eye of resident George Mclean. The birds have found a home on Winthrop and Yirrell beaches this summer, a pleasant surprise to birding experts.

By Seth Daniel

For the Transcript

Winthrop’s beaches are taking a turn to the birds, a Least Tern that is.

For the past couple of years, endangered bird species have returned to Winthrop Beach and Yirrell Beach - a development that has surprised just about everyone in the birding world and Winthrop residents as well. However, this year, Winthrop Beach has also become home to one of the largest Least Tern bird colonies in the state.

A few years ago, the delicate Piping Plover showed up on Winthrop Beach and blew everyone’s mind. Protective fences went up to guard their nesting grounds and people were warned to keep their dogs away. This year, the federally-endangered Piping Plovers are back on Winthrop Beach, and they’ve also moved on Yirrell Beach, with both groups of Plovers hatching a fledging (meaning that they’ve been raised to be self-sufficient).

A similar story on Revere Beach has also played out with Piping Plovers, making the area one of the more unbelievable stories for those who monitor state and federally endangered birds.

2n080409“Both beaches in Winthrop and Revere Beach continue to be really productive for Piping Plovers, which is kind of amazing since they are urban beaches,” said Becky Harris, director of the Coastal Waterbird program at Mass Audubon - the state’s foremost authority on birds. “Overall, there are four pairs of Piping Plovers on Revere, Winthrop and Yirrell beaches and they’ve hatched 14 chicks this year. That’s about 3.5 per pair, which is unbelievable. I think the state average is probably not more than one chick per pair.”

Susannah Corona, the North Shore coordinator for the program, said to have the Plovers and the Least Tern colony is almost enviable, though the terns aren’t quite as endearing as the small, quiet, fragile Plovers. She said the bird development has made Winthrop and Yirrell beaches an urban birding sanctuary for endangered species.

“It’s there and it’s quite unexpected and it’s not like that in other beaches,” she said. “There are other beaches around that one would think would be more suited, but much to the dismay of people at those beaches, the birds don’t go there…There’s this tern colony that came in and was totally unexpected. They started nesting in the Harbor Islands, and we suspect that the colony that was on Lovell’s Island has moved to Winthrop Beach. It’s done very well, and so have the Piping Plovers. Yirrell Beach had a successful Plover nest, too.”

As Corona said, the terns have become a large group, and while they’re not as cute as the little Plovers and they have taken up a good chunk of the beach, they are still on the state endangered list and their appearance in Winthrop is a very important development in the comeback of the species.

“The terns are very unexpected and unique,” said Corona. “This is the largest tern colony between Duxbury and Crane Beach. It’s certainly an opportunity for education…In Winthrop, they’ve given up half the beach to these birds this year. It’s caused some angst, but people have been good for the most part. There aren’t too many places these birds can find sanctuary.”

In the 1980s, strict conservation protections were put in place for nesting Piping Plovers, which is the genesis of the fencing laws that have been seen lately in Winthrop. When first protected, the Plovers were nearly lost in Massachusetts. Now, however, they have begun to thrive, and there are nearly triple the numbers of nesting pairs in Massachusetts today. The state contains about 15 percent of the world population, and the birds nest on beaches from North Carolina to Nova Scotia.

The Least Tern has a much longer history in the state. The species was nearly completely lost at the end of the 1800s as the birds were slaughtered in huge quantities to provide decorations for ladies’ hats. Protections were put in place not long afterward and the terns did come back, but much more strict protections in the late 1970s have increased the numbers more substantially.

Harris said the appearance of birds on these beaches speaks to the success of aggressive protections. However, she added, their appearance speaks to the resurgence and cleanliness of the area’s urban beaches - a product of the mandated Boston Harbor cleanup.

“Definitely, it’s a great thing for the whole program that they’re doing better and spreading to new habitats,” said Harris. “It’s clearly a positive for the beaches that they’re clean enough and have enough food - foods like invertebrates and bugs that require a clean environment. It’s a good indication of the state of the beaches.”

Said Corona, “In the case of the Piping Plover, I think the protections put in place years ago have worked and created more Plovers who are moving out to colonize their ancestral beaches. They’re moving up because there are more of them. They’re not out of danger, but it speaks well to the fact that protections do work.”

Corona also said there are some unexpected benefits for people, too.

As she watched two young boys on Winthrop Beach last week, she noted that they were playing as if they were soldiers and the terns were airplanes dive bombing them. It seemed as if the terns were playing along - so that both humans and birds were interacting together in a very positive fashion.

“These kids will remember that their entire life,” she said. “Zoos pour millions of dollars into exhibits that aim to have people and animals interacting. This is real interaction. They’re talking with you and communicating with you…That’s real interaction with wildlife that’s not mediated with a zoo or anything else.”

For those interested, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) will be running a program entitled “Protecting the Piping Plover” on Winthrop Beach, on Saturday, August 22, from 10 to 11 a.m. at Shore Drive and Dolphin Avenue.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Dolphin Slaughter


'The Cove:' Japan Has a Dark Secret It Hopes the World Will Never See

By Tara Lohan, AlterNet
Posted on August 6, 2009, Printed on August 6, 2009

Ric O'Barry almost looks crazy. He is driving a car, with a mask over his mouth, crouching low in his seat, hoping not to be recognized.

If the authorities catch him, there's no telling what will happen to him. He's cruising through the misty streets of Taiji, Japan, a small town with a really big secret, he says. And it's a secret that the town's fishermen want to hide from the rest of the world at all costs.

This is how the documentary, The Cove, opens. And it turns out O'Barry is not crazy, he's on a mission -- probably one of the most important in the history of conservation. And it's personal.

He used to be a world-famous dolphin trainer. He captured and trained the five dolphins who played Flipper in the hit TV show of the same name. The show's popularity sparked a dolphin craze that has continued since the 1960s and has grown into $2 billion industry in the U.S. alone.

But while places like Sea World might be raking in the cash, O'Barry has spend the last 35 years trying to end dolphin captivity -- having had a change of heart after the tragic suicide of one of the main dolphins in Flipper. (If you want to know how a dolphin can commit suicide, you'll have to see The Cove.)

It turns out these intelligent and charismatic creatures don't do well in captivity -- half of all captive dolphins die within two years. They're used to swimming 40 miles a day, diving hundreds of feet deep and hanging out with their close-knit pod. Apparently jumping through hoops and swimming with tourists in a pool just isn't an adequate substitute.

But that hasn't stopped the plethora of marine theme parks and the horrific industry that has grown to support it. It has, however, inspired O'Barry to expose some of the worst of it, which is why he's hiding out in Taiji.

In this quaint fishing village, each fall, tens of thousands of migrating dolphins are captured, some of which are sold into captivity (for up to $150,000 a piece), and the rest are taken to a secret cove and slaughtered (to be sold for their meat -- sometimes falsely described as whale meat).

O'Barry wants the world to see what's happening in Taiji, and that means staying out of reach of the authorities and the local fishermen, who would very much like him arrested, deported, or worse. It also means trying to get into the secret cove with a camera.

The film kicks off with O'Barry joining forces with filmmaker Louis Psihoyos and the Ocean Preservation Society to put together a dream team of sorts that will get them into the cove and capture the horror on film.

It's reminiscent of Oceans 11 to be sure -- there are underwater sound and camera experts, special-effects artists to hide microphones in fake rocks, marine explorers and world-reknown free divers who help get the gear into place, and unmanned drones.

There are secret night-time missions, viewed on film with military-grade thermal cameras, where the crew is constantly dodging either the police, the Japanese mafia or irate fishermen.

It's a thriller. You're perched on the edge of your seat wondering if they'll get the footage they need or if they'll get nabbed. Sometimes it's so engaging, you forget to wonder if you actually want to see what they're trying to tape. And that's the film's greatest accomplishment.

Mixed in to the night-vision goggles and camouflage narrative are the images and interviews that make you realize why these people are risking their lives to make a movie: to save some dolphins.

These creatures are incredible. And the filmmaking is incredibly beautiful -- like Winged Migration with cetaceans. If they get the footage, you're going to want to see it, you're going to have to, because of the injustice of it.

There's also another layer of complexity to the film. There's the political stuff. Commercial whaling was outlawed in 1986, but dolphins -- members of the same family -- aren't protected.

The International Whaling Commission deems them "small cetaceans" and, apparently, therefore worthy of slaughter. Japan, which has tripled its dolphin killing since the ban, kills 23,000 dolphins each year, and thousands more are sold into captivity.

The country is also trying to overturn the whaling ban, and as the film shows, it is offering financial support to small, bankrupt nations to get folks on their side.

And there's also some serious health issues. Dolphins, sadly, are toxic-waste dumps these days. Their meat has been shown to have up to 1,000 times the allowable level of mercury. Eating their meat could be hazardous to a person's health, but often consumers may not know they're eating it.

The Cove shows that dolphin meat is sometimes passed off as whale meat -- and was even being served in school lunches in Taiji.

All this might seem a little depressing. And in some ways, it is. But you won't notice until after the film, because you'll be so blown away by what's on screen. It will captivate you, it will break your heart, and hopefully, it will make you jump out of your seat and help.

And if so, here's what you can do:

But for starters, gather up your own pod and go see the film.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.

© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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