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The Amazing Temple Grandin – UPDATED

February 7th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


HBO has a new movie for television debuting this weekend.
It is a bio pic of sorts based on the life and memoirs of writer/biologist Temple Grandin.

If you’re not familiar with Grandin, she is an autistic woman who is considered to be one of the nation’s top animal biologists. She credits her exceptional facility for understanding animals’ fears and needs and actions to the perceptual lens her own autistic condition has—for better and for worse— uniquely provided.

Her 2004 book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, was easily my favorite book I read that year.

Terry Gross has interviewed Grandin three different times on Fresh Air (once for the release of each one of Grandin’s books). This past Friday, Fresh Air played a compilation of the interviews to coincide with the launching of the HBO movie.

The movie, which would have been all to simple to wreck, is thankfully reported to be excellent. Mary McNamera at the LA Times said it was:

Utterly and gorgeously unsentimental, “Temple Grandin,” arriving Saturday, clomps across the screen with all the wild-eyed grace of its main character, chronicling the life of a woman who not only overcame a host of physical, mental and social obstacles but actually used her autism to create a career for herself in animal husbandry.

The film stars, of all people, Claire Danes, who in the clips that I have heard, is stunningly good.. The Huffington Post says of Danes:

Finally, she has a found a role where she is beyond great, she is stupendous. Claire Danes is revelatory as Temple Grandin animal behaviorist, best-selling author, autistic and expert in autism. This is a fascinating movie and I learned so much about this woman and about autism. Temple did not speak until she was four and if not for her mother would have probably ended up spending her life in an institution. What a loss that would have been.

I’ve got it TiVOed and plan to watch it tonight.. (It is playing off and on during much of the week.)

But, whether or not you watch the movie, at the very least, if you don’t know about Temple Grandin, do yourself a favor listen to the interview mash-up. Her unique and entirely unsentimental ability to feel into an animal’s perspective tells us a great deal about our fellow creatures and also, frankly, about ourselves.


I saw the film late last night, and it’s so, so incredibly good. Claire Danes is spectacular. She utterly vanishes into being Grandin.

Please, just see it. You’ll thank me. If you don’t have HBO, wait until it’s on DVD and go for it then. But if you miss it, you’ll be missing out. So don’t.

Posted in American voices, bears and alligators | 4 Comments »

And Now for a Nice, Calming Whale Break

February 4th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Thursday has been one of those days.

* The stock market tanked Thursday morning based on the newest perception of a stumbling global economy.

*Thursday afternoon Mayor Villaraigosa did what the City Council would not and ordered the layoffs of 1,000 city employees to help balance the city’s budget. (Naturally, the layoffs will pretty much apply only to the poor schlubs who are not represented by a union.)

*And also, Thursday, Scott Brown was sworn in as U.S. Senator meaning, according to the AP’s Laurie Kellman (and run in, among other places, the Washington Post) that “Obama and the Democrats, who still enjoy big majorities in both the House and Senate, can do virtually nothing between now and the November elections without the GOP’s say-so. ” (You know what, AP & WaPo? Screw you. If you can’t say something more insightful than that stale toast, just STFU.)

So…..ahem, now that it’s Thusday evening, I recommend we all take a brief mental health break. Let us all pause and think about….. whales, Nice, big, intelligent whales— leviathans. Actually one whale in particular, a baby who has been hanging around the Malibu Pier for the last few days. (And, yes, I know that whales kill penguins and all that. So don’t leave a comment informing me of this fact. Call me Ishmael. At least whales don’t have lobbyists.)

As of this afternoon, it seems that the little gray whale, who was providing photo ops for anyone who could manage to make the drive to see the seemingly friendly (or at the very least, curious) creature, has wandered off back into the deep blue (in a swimmy kind of way).. But he (she?)—everyone’s been calling the beast Willie—left behind many snapshots like the one below taken by the concessionaires at Malibu Pier.


Okay, now back to the regularly-scheduled dour and fractious stuff we call news.

PS: One more thing: in addition, on Thursday it was reported that a group of 18 scientists from Australia,
France and New Zealand are steaming by boat toward Antarctica to challenge—philosophically, not physically—the Japanese scientists who have weaseled around the 1986 international whaling ban and manage to kill around 1000 whales a year in the name of research. The 18 consortium researchers aim to disprove the supposed necessity of whale hunting in the name of science. “We don’t have to kill whales to learn about them,” said one of the Australians.

Indeed. Go scientists. Go whales.

Photo—-and whale updates—by Malibu Pier.

Posted in bears and alligators | 3 Comments »

Free Speech and Dog Fighting

October 6th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


Today, Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear a very intriguing
and important case on whether videos of dog fighting—and other depictions of animal cruelty— should be protected under the First Amendment….or not.

To get a feel for the nuances of the case, listen to the rundown by NPR’s Nina Totenberg. (While Totenberg can at times get on one’s nerves, she is a wonder at taking a court case and explaining it in clear, detailed and lively terms that allow her listeners to form their own informed opinions.)

Here are some clips:

[The case] asks whether the government can make it a crime to sell or possess any depiction of animal cruelty.

The case is about dogfighting videos, but critics argue that it could apply to anything from photos in Field and Stream magazine or hunting videos, to Arnold Schwarzenegger punching a camel in Conan the Barbarian.

In 1999, Congress passed a law aimed initially at “crush videos.” These are videos of women typically in high heels crushing small animals, like mice and kittens — apparently a sexual fetish.

The law, however, has broad language. It makes it a crime to possess or sell any depiction of animal cruelty — specifically the killing, wounding, torturing or mutilation of an animal — as long as the conduct is illegal in the place where the prosecution is brought.

Enter Robert Stevens, a pit bull lover — or exploiter, depending on who is telling the story. He did not make any dogfighting films or stage any fights. Instead, he compiled films made by others of pit bulls fighting mainly in Japan, where it is legal.

Stevens sold the films commercially. He says it was to promote the proper use and training of pit bulls. His critics say it was to make money.

Read the whole thing. It covers the waterfront.

For the record, as much as I am a devoted lover of critters, and as much as I loath and revile practices like dogfighting, I think think the law is too broad and therefore unconstitutional. It should be struck down. And then, I hope, rewritten with more care so that it bans the kind of cruelty it intends—not, say, films of dove hunting or Spanish bullfights.

(And, yes, I did intentionally find one of the cutest and most manipulative possible cat pictures.)

Posted in bears and alligators, Supreme Court | 12 Comments »

Minds in the Water – UPDATED

July 13th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


Last October, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to wade into the battle
over whether then president George Bush should be able to override a federal judge after that judge ruled that the US Navy would have to modify its use of sonar in training exercises held off the Southern California coast because of compelling evidence that the sonar did harm to whales.

Yet, despite mounds of data showing that sonar was causing whale deaths, in a 6 to 3 decision, the Supremes decided for the Navy and against the whales, the most recent version of centuries worth of conflict between whales and humans.

Still, in the view of many naturalists, the fact that the Supreme Court had been willing to hear the case at all was a welcome step forward. Moreover, after the decision the Navy agreed to do more to protect the whales when conducting its exercises.

Now, says Charles Siebert, writing for the NY Times Magazine, some biologists are beginning to believe that whales might be rewarding the more benign attitude that our species has had toward theirs in the past string of decades by consistently seeking us out in a way that seems…..relational. The huge creatures seem to want contact.

The phenomenon is most notably occurring, writes Siebert, in a particular area of Baja California.

I should note that Siebert occasionally tends to romanticize the great cetaceans that are considered to be among the planet’s most intelligent non-human mammels. But the story he tells of biologists perplexed by this suddenly friendly whale behavior is nonetheless fascinating.

Here are a few clips.

Scientists have now documented behaviors like tool use and cooperative hunting strategies among whales. Orcas, or killer whales, have been found to mourn their own dead. Just three years ago, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York discovered, in the brains of a number of whale species, highly specialized neurons that are linked to, among other things, the use of language and were once thought to be the exclusive property of humans and a few other primates. Indeed, marine biologists are now revealing not only the dizzying variety of vocalizations among a number of whale species but also complex societal structures and cultures.

Whales, we now know, teach and learn. They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.


“I don’t anthropomorphize,” [marine mammal behavioralist named Toni Frohoff] told me. “I leave it to other people to do that. What I do is study gray whales using the same rigorous methodologies that have long been used to study the behaviors of other species and interspecies interaction. Those who would reject out of hand the idea that whales are intelligent enough to consciously interact with us haven’t spent enough time around whales.”


I thought of another bit of interspecies cooperation involving humpbacks that I recently read about. A female humpback was spotted in December 2005 east of the Farallon Islands, just off the coast of San Francisco. She was entangled in a web of crab-trap lines, hundreds of yards of nylon rope that had become wrapped around her mouth, torso and tail, the weight of the traps causing her to struggle to stay afloat. A rescue team arrived within a few hours and decided that the only way to save her was to dive in and cut her loose.

For an hour they cut at the lines and rope with curved knives, all the while trying to steer clear of a tail they knew could kill them with one swipe. When the whale was finally freed, the divers said, she swam around them for a time in what appeared to be joyous circles. She then came back and visited with each one of them, nudging them all gently, as if in thanks. The divers said it was the most beautiful experience they ever had. As for the diver who cut free the rope that was entangled in the whale’s mouth, her huge eye was following him the entire time, and he said that he will never be the same.

It is worth reading the rest of this enchanting article.


UPDATE: Both Siebert and biologist Toni Frohoff are interviewed by Terry Gross on today’s Fresh Air. The audio just now went up. I’m listening as I type. Give yourself a treat when you have time. It’ll cheer you up, I promise.

Hearing about members of two different species reaching out to each other makes the world and all of its problems seem like a slightly more manageable place.

Posted in bears and alligators, environment | 16 Comments »

Pitt Bulls and Rottweilers and Gangsters, Oh My! – UPDATED

January 27th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


Monday on the LA Times animal blog
there is a story that manages to combine a holy trinity of favorite WitnessLA issues: gangs, foolish laws….and critters.

(Sadly no wolves or bears are involved, but one cannot have everything in a single story. And while we’re on the subject, are we happy or despondent that the same local newspaper that saw fit to eliminate the Homicide Report and four fifths of the book review section, now has an animal blog? Tough call.)

It seems that the city of Lancaster has decided that a swell way to crack down on gangs is to go after the gang members’ dogs. Or the gang members who have dogs. Or those gangsters who have certain dogs.

Anyway, with this fuzzy notion in mind, Tuesday the city council will vote on a proposed ordinance that would impose harsh penalties on the owners of dogs labeled “potentially dangerous” or “vicious”—namely Rottweilers and Pitt Bulls. Even more controversial is the part of the ordinance that requires all Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and mixed-breeds with the physical characteristics of either Rotts or Pits, to be spayed or neutered.


UPDATE: They indeed passed the thing. The LA Times has the story here along with some more…uh… notable quotes from the mayor.


“I want gangs out of Lancaster,” Mayor R. Rex Parris told a local interviewer. “I want to make it uncomfortable for them to be here. Anything they like, I want to take it away from them. I want to deliberately harass them….”

Alrighty then. And a happy civil liberties day to you too, Mister Mayor. (So, is it me or does the concept of a mayor named R. Rex Parris strike you as a bit Batman comic books-ish?)

It seems, however, that not all the good citizens of Lancaster are quite as enthusiastic about Mayor Parris’s new gang strategy as he is. In fact, many law abiding residents also have Rotts and Pits and don’t like being told what they may or may not do with their family pets.

As the devoted owner of a breed that could arguably make the “potentially dangerous” list—namely Loup-Loup-the-wolf dog—I can understand the Lancasterites disgruntled position on the topic. (When we were deciding whether or not to adopt one of my neighbor’s part wolf puppies I ran into all manner of literature, plus a slew of well-meaning “experts,” that warned us against the ghastly dangers of wolf hybrids. We are still waiting for Loup-Loup to turn on us. Thus far, it’s been a 14-year wait.)

Part of the ordinance makes good sense in that it would levy heavy penalties against anyone owning a dog that bites or repeatedly menaces people.

Personally, I have exactly zero tolerance for people who allow dogs that bite to roam free. Ditto for idiots who think it’s cool to train household dogs to be vicious, a practice that all too often involves mistreatment of the creatures.

Mandatory spaying and neutering has much to be said for it too. But designations of “potentially dangerous,” plus enforced sterilization, levied against only certain breeds regardless of training and temperament is….stupid. And a legal slippery slope—especially when, under the ordinance, a single officer can determine whether or not a dog should be destroyed.

Viewing all of the above as a good gang suppression tactic is….what’s the term I’m looking for?…Oh, yeah…..moronic.

When a crowd of dog owners showed up to a recent Lancaster City Council meeting, pets along with them, according to the LA Times there were some memorable exchanges.

For instance, at one point dog trainer A.J. Listman asked the mayor (who is also a personal injury lawyer) what he would do “when these gang members that you’re trying to target move on to Dobermans or German Shepherds? You going to restrict them too?”

“If they move on to cats,” the Times reports Parris responded, “I’m going to take their cats.”

(sigh.) Some people parody themselves.

PS: NOTE TO MAYOR REX PARRIS: I don’t want to trigger a brand new ordinance or anything, and maybe it’s just my luck, but I seem to know an inordinate number of gang members, or former gang members with kids and families, who have Chihuahuas as pets. Do you also have plans for the Chihuahuas? Just curious.

Photo by Susan Beveridge

Posted in bears and alligators, Gangs, Los Angeles Times | 17 Comments »

Media Propaganda: L.A. CityBeat vs. L.A. Weekly*

January 15th, 2009 by


    Can this paper last a full term?

*Who cares? Move on!

I’m not one to obsess over the recent past in the local journalism world. For me, the main problem is figuring out a viable model for an online news site that would inform Los Angeles residents about the top issues of the day, and hold public officials accountable.

Such a site would advocate for what people need: Better public schools, better public transportation, cleaner air free of those microscopic particles that are sickening and killing more people than L.A.’s worst smog of the 1950s. It would regularly take D.A. Steve Cooley to task for not ridding Southeast L.A. cities of public corruption, and keep the heat on him to announce whether he will ever bring pedophile protector Cardinal Roger Mahony to justice.

This news site would initially alarm people who believe in the fiction of objectivity and so-called fairness; in time, even the skeptics would be won over by the divergent voices that would appear along the way to taming unmanageable Los Angeles and California. This news site would play an activist role.

Right now, it would mobilize parent-student groups around the state to storm the offices of Republican legislators who refuse to raise taxes to keep public schools from losing billions of dollars. It would be full of local news: stories about L.A. City Council meetings, committee meetings. Every week, public schools that work and don’t work would be featured. There would be listings every year for the 100 worst lawyers in town; the 10 best and worst judges.

Every legislator in the state would be interviewed and pressed to fix Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax-slashing measure that devastated the state’s commitment to providing public services. The key players who run Los Angeles behind the scenes, like the DWP’s union boss Brian D’Arcy, would be exposed. Too bad we wouldn’t have subpoena power to force every member of the City Council to disclose their dealings with him.

Oh, I almost forgot to say a word about the CityBeat piece. All of this is more important than righting a few wrongs. But really, it should have said that L.A. Weekly’s star investigative reporter Jeff Anderson left the paper voluntarily in 2007. And if CityBeat wants to blast the L.A. Weekly for canning theater critic Steven Leigh Morris and film critic Ella Taylor, then it should also disclose in the same piece that this week CityBeat dumped its own legend, the inimitable movie reviewer and office scholar and comedian Andy Klein. The article amounts to propaganda; otherwise, it would have told you that similar cuts and carnage render CityBeat’s own future uncertain and bleak.

And, yes, this news site will have room for all three critics!

Photo credit: Ted Soqui

Posted in bears and alligators, media | 10 Comments »

The Times: Failing Four-Year-Old Roberto and Us

January 14th, 2009 by

Four-year-old Roberto Lopez is the latest symbol of a dying newspaper. The little boy was shot and killed as he walked with his sister to a community center near their Angelino Heights home around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Where did the Los Angeles Times play the story? Page B3 in my edition. It should, at least, have been the dominant story on the cover of the California section and knocked off a timeless feature about a fire-gutted Montecito monastery’s efforts to rebuild.

Instead, we get a short story, with no photo of the boy. No interviews with family, friends or neighbors. No neighborhood scene. Times’ editors should have followed the example of LAPD’s Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, who told their reporter: “We’re throwing everything we have at this investigation.”

I’m so over blaming Sam Zell for every shortcoming of our once stronger daily; rarely great, just stronger. Reporters and photographers out to save their jobs from impending layoffs should have carpooled to the scene and produced an in-depth series of stories and hoisted them on their editors in time for today’s paper. Too bad a tipster couldn’t have phoned in an erroneous report of a celebrity spotted in the neighborhood. Maybe the sleepyheads on Spring Street will recover in time for Thursday’s paper. To its credit, the paper’s Web site shows some progress on the story, with video from Tribune’s KTLA. Still, it seems like their overdosing on sedatives in the Times newsroom again.

But that’s not the only felony case of an underplayed, underdeveloped story in the fumbling Times.

We’re in the midst of the worst state budget crisis in history. The governor threatens to cut billions from public school budgets. The latest survey shows California now ranks 47th in public school funding.

The criminal enterprise known as L.A. Unified, which should be overseen by a panel of federal judges, took steps to can 2,300 teachers if the nightmarish budget comes true. Where did the story run? Page B-4.

The Times should run front-page stories every day on the latest news of the budget debacle. Include email addresses, home phone numbers and home addresses of every GOP legislator who refuses to act responsibly and raise taxes. (OK, I hear you on the home addresses.) Interview the constitutents of these backward-thinking lawmakers to see if these cavemen really represent their views.

Even the governor, who continues to steal transit money, is calling for tax hikes. The same governor who would have billions more to spend today had he not slashed the car tax upon taking office in 2003.

Forgive me, L.A. Times, for suggesting you step up your game. You probably think what I’m calling for sounds like advocacy journalism and would force you to surrender your objectivity, an outdated term that only provides an excuse for your failure to inform a community about the meaning of events and issues.

Tell me, what’s your objective view of a bankrupt state that fails to meet the needs of its young and its most needy residents?

And what does your objectivity say about the sad end of 4-year-old Roberto’s life? How are we to cope when you don’t tell us more about him, our city, our struggles and our future?

While you think about it, leave a red rose on Roberto’s shrine. It’s OK to mourn while you ponder questions for Chief Bratton and the mayor.

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, bears and alligators, Bill Bratton, crime and punishment, criminal justice, families, journalism, Los Angeles Times | 14 Comments »

Obama Watch: Rehabilitating the Department of the Interior

December 17th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


A secretary of the interior who actually likes nature….?
What a novel idea! We hope that’s who we’re about to get.

With his choice of Colorado Senator Ken Salazar as interior secretary, Barack Obama has named a moderate. Yet, conservationists think—or at least many of them hope—that, with Obama’s environmental leanings shaping the agenda, Salazar will oversee a big shift n the Department of the Interior.

Salazar, as the New York Times puts it, will inherit a department “riddled with incompetence and corruption, captive to industries it is supposed to regulate and far more interested in exploiting public resources than conserving them. ”

(I wrote about Bush’s outgoing interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, and his antipathy toward the Endanged Species Act here and here.)

Here’re are some clips from this morning’s NY Times editorial on the mess made by Kempthorne and his predecessors that Salazar will soon have to clean up.

No cabinet post is as critical to the integrity of the nation’s parks, its open spaces and its animal species. Mr. Obama, and his environmental adviser in chief, Carol Browner, must be prepared to offer Mr. Salazar full support, especially in fending off the ranchers and the oil, gas, mining and other special interests who have always found the Interior Department to be a soft target, never more so than in the Bush administration.

Mr. Salazar’s most urgent task will be to remove the influence of politics and ideology from decisions that are best left to science.

Just as Mr. Salazar’s name was surfacing for the job, Earl Devaney, currently the department’s inspector general, reported to Congress that on 15 separate occasions the department’s political appointees had weakened protections for endangered species against the advice of the agency’s scientists, whose work they either ignored or distorted.

This sort of meddling has become standard operating procedure. Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, resigned last year after an earlier report found that she had run roughshod over agency scientists and violated federal rules by giving internal documents to industry lobbyists.

It will be a nice for a change that those charged with protecting our precious natural resources will not be the ones actively assaulting them.

Posted in bears and alligators, environment | 7 Comments »

Blood Lust

September 29th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
began the process needed to put wolves back on the endangered species list, reports the LA Times on Sunday.

Now remember, the gray wolves were taken off the list in March—despite warnings and law suits on the part of environmental groups. (Follow the links for previous posts on the wolf issue.)

So what happened? Just what many of us feared. In a bare six months so many wolves have been shot by hunters seemingly gone wild with wolf blood lust, that the Feds felt they had no choice but to step in.

It was a stunning reversal in what wildlife biologists had hailed as a success story. The species had flourished, its population growing by about 20% a year since wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995. This was proof the Endangered Species Act worked, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said when it delisted the wolf in March.

In July, federal District Judge Donald Molloy issued an injunction against the state wolf plans, after a challenge by environmental groups. He questioned whether indiscriminate killing would reduce wolf numbers back to crisis levels. He also said the hunt could isolate packs of wolves, reducing the species’ gene pool.

Some wildlife biologists say the damage is already done. Nearly all of the known wolves in Wyoming’s free-fire area were killed in little more than a month. Recent estimates show that the wolf population in the three states began to decline for the first time in more than a decade even before the hunt.

I’m not at all surprised by this news. Just sickened.

Look, I get the point of view of ranchers who’ve lost stock to wolves. (Although according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, coyotes, dogs, mountain lions and vultures kill more cattle than wolves. But, whatever.)

Yet why one is driven to hunt and kill a wolf for sport is beyond me. Especially in such numbers.

Especially like this:

[Rancher Merrill] Dana thinks he knows the details of the last wolf kill, on May 2. He believes the hunter was a young man who tracked a female for 70 miles on a snowmobile in and out of dense stands of trees.

“She was a loner who was plumb lost,” Dana said of the wolf. “All her mates were gone [killed]. The kid was going through sagebrush and fences and trees. He tore up an $8,000 snow machine.”

Yeah, that’s really manly. A real sportsman.

Posted in bears and alligators, environment | 1 Comment »

Obama the Money Monster

June 20th, 2008 by

    We’re surrounded by monsters

What a relief that Obama reneged on his pledge to limit his fall campaign to the paltry sums of public financing. It was a dumb promise when he made it and would have limited his ability for open combat with McCain the Monster. Public financing is a monstrously broken system. Most campaign-finance reform violates the Premier Monster, otherwise known as the First Amendment anyways.
Obama is now a free man and will raise a monstrous $300 million for the fall campaign. That’s nearly four times as much as the fairy-like $84 million he would have received in public money. Those extra bucks will make it easy to weather any public ridicule for breaking his word like someone out to achieve a goal at any cost, financial or moral.
But now that Obama’s shown himself open to reviewing his past words and deeds, he should make nice with Samantha Power and welcome her back in the fold as a foreign policy adviser. He was wrong to force her out and should make room for her and her divergent views.
We need more open debate in this country. Let’s stop penalizing people for speaking their mind, on or off the record, and that includes politicians, entertainers and radio-show hosts. Such debate isn’t easy to tolerate, particularly when it means giving voice to bull-headed forces of evil, which is exactly what the Supremes did in a decision yesterday, handing namby-pamby California unions their ass. I may have more to say about that righteous ruling later, but this post is dedicated to Obama the Money Monster.

Posted in bears and alligators, Civil Liberties, Courts, DNA, Elections '08, Free Speech, Presidential race, unions, wolves | 17 Comments »

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