Autopsy of a Whale

by Danny Adcock

Grey skies scurry South as if they have somewhere to be, and are in a hurry to get there. The sea is still some way off even though I am several hundred yards down the beach. There is a confused chop on its drab, brownish waters, and it does not look very inviting. The shifting sands that slope gently down to meet it are covered in the scrunch of emptied razor shells, and old tide lines like contours on a map segue into one another, and delineate the beach into different shades. This is the precise curve of Norfolk coast where the Wash becomes the North Sea, between Holme and Hunstanton; where North West Norfolk becomes North Norfolk, and where arcades, caravans and chalets give way to gourmet pubs, swanky holiday homes, boutiques and delis.

A few hundred yards away what I am here to see lies forlornly on the sand, its head facing the sea that it must have struggled so desperately with the evening before. This is the last of a group of six sperm whales that were seen together in the North Sea, to become stranded and die on the beaches of Norfolk and Lincolnshire in recent weeks. I have seen sperm whales off the New Zealand coast, but there is little to equate that experience with this. I guess it is between forty and fifty feet long, but it is not the whale’s size that enthrals me, everyone knows whales are big; it is the creature’s head and jaw that are extraordinary. If people wear the scars of their lives upon their faces, then so do sperm whales, and if a face can ever be said to tell a story, then the life and character of these whales is writ large in theirs. Its head and jaw are a blotchy grey-blue, stained in places with white patches in a pattern like blooms in a petri dish; it is scored, striated and scarred from its deep-sea battles with its favourite prey, giant and colossal squid (that is not a superfluous use of epithet on my behalf for both species exist). There are perfectly circular pock-marks, as if someone has placed a cup on the whale’s skin and drawn round it, which can surely only have come from the suckers on a squid’s tentacle. Imagining life in those harrowingly inky depths conjures up images of Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and of course, nobody can ever see a sperm whale without thinking of Herman Melville’s sprawling, mythic epic of life, death and obsession.

Though the whales that died here didn’t belong here in life, in death it seems they do. The tide has already left a slight hollow around this one’s body, and its great tail is partly covered with sand. It is already sinking into, and becoming a part of this landscape and, though it is alien to it, it does not seem nearly as out of place as the two four-wheel drives parked incongruously next to it. Left to nature, gradually this whale would melt into the landscape, like the ice sheets that created it hundreds of thousands of years ago. The gulls, fish, foxes and other creatures of land and sea would be provided with a bounty to last months. But, eventually, time and tide would have scoured all away; skin, blubber, bones and memories, all ground down a little more with each wave, each tide. But that is not this whale’s fate. This whale’s fate is to be ignominiously shovelled onto the back of a low-loader, driven away, and buried in a landfill site or incinerated somewhere far from where it lived and died. Anthropomorphism aside, there is an undeniable sadness in that.

About twenty people are standing around the dark bulk of the whale which lies on its right side, its long, slim, lower jaw agape, and punctuated at regular intervals by large pairs of white teeth. Most are photographers or journalists. There are a few dog-walkers, and others here specifically to see the whale, as well as four camera crews, and an ex-Springwatch presenter. Another car is approaching across the sand from Hunstanton. Most people are taking photographs, whether professionally or on their mobile phones, and I take a couple myself.

The coastguard begins to cordon the body of the whale off. Eventually everyone is behind the tape which flutters wildly in the wind. Whereas before, everybody was milling about, walking round and round the body of the whale, now we are static, and side by side. Conversations begin. One man, who is so inadequately dressed against the cold wind in a thin blue hoody that he is visibly shivering, is so committed to staying he has found some sort of plastic sheeting which he stuffs up the back of his top to try and stop the wind scything through it. He groans every now and then, I presume at the cold, and attempts to re-position his makeshift clothing. As another four-wheel drive pulls up next to the whale’s body, this one belonging to the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Program, he groans again.

‘Once they arrive, the experience seems to belong to them somehow,’ he says, as if he has some previous knowledge of ‘them’ and of what they are about to do.

I understand what he means. Now we are beyond the cordon, it seems almost as if we’ve lost contact with the whale, lost the intimacy that there was in proximity. It feels almost as if when we were able to get close to it, to touch its cold rubbery skin, we were afforded, or were affording, comfort somehow. To their credit, those within the cordon seem to understand this; there is a palpable sense of embarrassment in their avoidance of eye contact with those of us who were here first, but are now forbidden from approaching the whale.

The autopsy begins with a small square of blubber being cut from the whale’s flank with scalpel-like precision. Then its eye is removed. Though I can tell what is happening, the scientist performing the autopsy is obviously sensitive to those watching, for he keeps the eye slightly hidden by his body, and then slides it gelatinously into a specimen bag which he hands to one of his colleagues, who removes it quickly to the car. Whales engender strong feelings in people, whether dead or alive, and when a hacksaw is produced and, with some difficulty, the lower third of the whale’s jaw is sawn through, blue-hoody mutters under his breath.

‘I wish they wouldn’t do that,’ he groans.

‘What’s the point of it, that’s what I want to know?’ someone else demands. ‘Why can’t they leave the damned thing in peace?’

I don’t reply, but I do know that this whale is dead. If in death it can give up some clue from its enigmatic life as to what caused it, and its pod-mates, to leave their normal deep-water habitat somewhere North of Scotland, and strand themselves in these shallow seas then, though what is taking place here may not be pleasant, its death may prove to have some meaning.

The autopsy continues with a ten-inch blade on the end of a four-foot handle. It must be just the sort of implement the whalers used. Its salient sharpness slices through the ten-inch-thick blubber with ease, but at the same time it causes disturbing waves to ripple through time like the angry flapping of an unfurling sail: this is what we used to do to whales. The well-known history of human-whale interaction is a predictably and notoriously bloody one, as is the history of our interaction with many species, not least ourselves. But the figure clambering over the dead whale, eviscerating it, dismembering it, is not just an anachronism, a brutal ghost from the past, he is also a symbol of hope, of beneficence, even though the physicality of what he is doing makes that hard to perceive.

There is a sense of loss and sadness here, tragedy even, when you take in to account the fact this whale is one of six to have died. Though they swam together in life, they died separately, in ones and twos. Sperm whales communicate using a series of clicks and whistles like dolphins, and there is some research to suggest different groups use different dialects. This whale would certainly have known that it was alone when it died. To imagine its unanswered calls reverberating through the cold, grey slabs of waves sliding across the North Sea is to invoke a quite heart breaking poignancy. Whether it was capable of understanding why those calls went unanswered, of understanding and feeling the sense of its own impending death, and the death of those it swam with, is a question it does not feel good to dwell on.

As I stand amongst the small crowd still here, I wonder why it is that people seem to love and value whales over many other creatures. I passed the half-rotten carcass of a seal at the top of the beach, but I barely glanced at it, and it certainly wouldn’t have produced the reaction here today. People attribute value to many things, often subconsciously. Pounds and pence are the most obvious, but not only currency, and whether our car is newer than our neighbour’s, our house bigger, our holiday more exotic, are the yardsticks that society sets us. Society even rates and assigns value to individuals. Usually we perceive family, friends and those we trust to be more valuable to us than others. And in some way we also assign value to the natural world. Dead deer on the roadside here in Norfolk rarely attract more than a passing comment; rabbits, hares and pheasants none. The familiar is also the insignificant. I am guilty of this myself even as I write these words, and the inconsistencies of my flawed, human nature are clear. I can find words to write on the regal magnificence of deer; the beauty of a cock pheasant’s plumage under a Winter sun; the mad-eyed speed of a hare over a field in the Spring, but I struggle with the rabbit. We assign value by quantity and size too, and both of these attributes contribute at least partly to why we often give whales more value than we do other creatures. Rabbits are inconsequential in size, but seemingly superfluous in number, whereas whales are spectacular in size, but depleted in number. Other factors, besides those we consider to hold an intrinsic value, affect our perception of worth, with some of the photographers and camera crew here today being responsible. The media tell us some people are worth more respect, and are more valuable to society than others, and they do the same with animals. There are creatures far closer to extinction than whales, but they are smaller, less intelligent, are not washing up dead on our beaches, and have little mainstream news value.

If somehow the death of these whales brings the wider problems the seas have to the attention of an audience who might not otherwise have thought about their existence, perhaps there is a semblance of positivity to be gleaned from the scudding granite skies of today. The loss of this wonderful animal, beautiful and awe-inspiring even in death, is undoubtedly a tragedy that has affected more than those of us usually interested in the wild. As well as sadness there is anger and concern here today. We do not, and may never, know the real reason these whales came into the North Sea, somewhere they could never survive. Perhaps the value of this whale is that even in death it has the ability to move, to enthral, to excite, to foster curiosity in an ever-shrinking natural world. And it is important to give the whale’s death value, because by doing so we can give value, in turn, to its life. Without the death of this whale and the others, none of them would have existed in our lives, in much the same way we speculate whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound when there is nobody there to hear it.

This whale has made a sound, and its death and life have value and meaning to us, both as individuals, and as a society. In our increasingly dystopic, modern world beset with the constant threat of financial catastrophe, of ecological meltdown, of deepening ethnic and religious divides driven by hidden agendas, it is the value of wildness, of freedom, of beauty, of awe; the value of nature.

Danny Adcock is a contributor to Caught By The River, and The Island Review, and also writes for angling magazine Fallon’s Angler. As well as writing about nature and landscape, he is a keen fly fisherman, cyclist, and amateur photographer. He lives in North Norfolk. His blog can be found at:


by Kathy Miles

In his stern black feathers
he swifts from elm or oak
to claim his patch of seed.

His song drips into sluggish veins,
the fluency of music, as blackberries ripen,
dark and sleek as his body,

and rooks canvas the sky in late sun.
He chides the chough and jay who stray
into his territory. Feels the tightening

of light like a catch in the syrinx,
as evening unravels and dusk settles
down on fuschia and opening primrose.

This song is shared through generations,
a gift of merle, and he, proud of his heritage,
shouts it loudly from the branches,

from roof and chimney, heralds it
from blackthorne and rowan.
He offers this soliloquy to me,

the one who has stolen his land,
who does not sing the litany of dawn
or the last high notes of summer

but whose bread, hesitantly offered,
he takes as a mutual bond.

Kathy Miles is a poet and short story writer living in West Wales. She has published three collections of poetry: The Rocking Stone (Poetry Wales Press), The Shadow House, and Gardening With Deer (Cinnamon Press). She has been placed in several major competitions, winning the Welsh Poetry Competition in 2014, the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2015, and the PENfro Poetry Competition in 2016. She has just completed an MA in Creative Writing, and is a co-editor of The Lampeter Review.

Kirsten Furlong – Artist

“My current artistic practice engages with a series of questions about our culture’s multifaceted relationship to nature and the geography of human/animal interactions in urban and wilderness settings. These inquiries are utilized to contemplate various issues about the natural world and the concept of representation of animals and the environment. I create artworks based on first-hand observations and internal responses to objects, illustrations, and texts about various species. In the work, animals serve as emblems of nature and as metaphors for human desires.”

Kirsten Furlong was born in Milwaukee, WI and currently lives and works in Boise, ID (US). She received a BFA from the University of Nebraska (Omaha, NE) and a MFA from Boise State University (Boise, ID). She is the gallery director of the Visual Arts Center at Boise State University where she is also a lecturer in the Art Department.

Her work explores ideas related to humans’ multifaceted relationship to the natural world and includes drawing, painting, printmaking, and installations using paper and wood. She utilizes detail, repetition and patterns inspired by those she encounters in the natural world and found in the objects, images, and texts created to describe various environments, animals, and plants.

Header image: You Don’t Know Me (Wolf), acrylic, ink drawing, and chine colle’ on paper, 10″x 8″, 2016


Where did all the blue skies go?, ink, acrylic, colored pencil, and cyanotype collage on Tyvek, 48″x 45″, 2016 Title comes from the 1971 Marvin Gaye anthem Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) about the loss of clean air and water
Promise and Purpose, the Ancestors’ Dream, Collage, ink, graphite, and colored pencil on paper, 60″ x 60″, 2015, collection of the Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR


We Can’t Love You Enough (Ivory-Billed Woodpecker), ink on paper, 30″x 22″, 2016 From a series of drawings about the longing to restore extinct bird species lost to habitat destruction and loss.


Repeat and Shift: Badger, charcoal, ink, graphite, and collage on paper, 60″x 60″, 2015
View from the Anthropocene: Grassland (Prairie Chicken), ink and collage on paper, 11″ x 9″, 2016 From a series of drawings about birds and mammals of the US living in habitats that are under threat.

By The Time The Trucks Arrived

by Pippa Little

Baltard, County Clare, 2014

Finisterre by cliff. Nothing to see
but wheeled gouges, hooves’ half moons in a mud nowhere
the northerly never lets alone.

When a man, lost,
discovered what was done, it was News
with flash and strobe that brought

officials in topcoats, too, conferring
before the trucks arrived.
But by the time the trucks arrived

everyone was gone. The sea frayed
beyond mending,
down the steep track

they juddered to the bottom of the cliff, men in aprons
loaded ten mares, four cows and three calves
into the cold interiors. Where they were taken

would never be photographed. The papers turn
mousy and soft, up-curl on a window ledge,
absorb leakings-in of rain.

Ears cut off,
forced alive over the edge,
necks, legs broken,

left to die slow. Who will mourn
this pearl-eyed cargo,
paperless and stateless?

Eire has a problem with unwanted livestock, mainly horses, too expensive to keep or to slaughter humanely. There is widespread press outrage.

Pippa Little is a poet, editor, reviewer and creative writing workshop leader. Twist, her second full collection, is published by Arc. She lives in Northumberland with her husband, sons and dog and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University.

Rebecca Clark – Artist

“I make drawings of the natural world, transient moments of grace and beauty in an age of disappearance. Inspired by plant and animal studies of the Northern Renaissance, Netherlandish devotional panel paintings, and nature mysticism as expressed through various forms of art, music, poetry and prose, my art acknowledges interconnectedness in nature and our loss of connection with the sacred.

Our planet is broken because we’ve lost relationship with the earth, with our soul. My drawings serve as more than intimate portraits; they are testaments to lives lived. They are memento mori, reminders in this age of ecocide that humans cannot live detached from nature. May these quiet drawings remind us of our place on this planet and awaken our consciousness to the cosmos of which we are a part.

Rebecca Clark has had several recent solo exhibitions in the USA, including Finite and Alive (Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely, MD), Animal Nature (Piermont Straus, Piermont, NY) and Anima Mundi (Academy Art Museum, Easton, MD). Her illustrations have been published widely, including by Orion Magazine, Corbel Stone Press, The Dark Mountain Project and Earthlines.

Header Image – Wing (for Manon), 2012, detail, graphite on paper.


Kestrel 1 (Again, Alive, for Richard Skelton), 2014, graphite on paper.
Kestrel 2 (Revenant, for Autumn Richardson), 2014, graphite on paper.
Oisin, 2014, detail, graphite on paper.
Stafford’s Deer (for Bill Willis), 2013, graphite on paper.
Whale 3, 2016, graphite and colored pencil on paper.
Owl 1, 2013, graphite on paper.


In all the wrong places

by Beth McDonough

Afraid, I anticipated him – reckoned
killer boxes in the owner’s shed. I sensed
that macchja dense with his lives, head-rattled all

those words he’d claimed – scratch
scuttle, rustle, scurry, gnaw.
He glutted
my dark. Nightly, I fretted him, sifted

seeds for scat. On the lane’s camber I
tensed, stared riddles in stink-wide
bins for humped moves. No shadow shot

from flag leaf drains. I detected no presence
in dykes. No quick through briar thicks. None. I
opened myself to planets and stars. There

Rat, sleek along telegraph wires,
cork oak to cork oak, smooth
on summer low cables. My linear acrobat.

Beth McDonough trained in silversmithing at GSA, completing her M.Litt at Dundee University. Writer-in-residence at DCA 2014-16, her poetry appears in Agenda, Causeway, The Scores and elsewhere. She reviews in DURA. Handfast, with Ruth Aylett (Mother’s Milk, May 2016) charts family experiences – Aylett’s of dementia and McDonough’s of autism.

Moments with Barred Owls

Jenna Gersie

I spent a year under the gaze of wild birds. At first, I couldn’t look into their eyes, out of respect. Slowly, I gained their trust, and they reached a level of comfort with me that they had achieved with other trainers before. I wore a thick leather glove and a hip-pack filled with pieces of mice. They wore ferocity, stoicism, and dignity. The injured wild birds who came into our care bore a type of bravery I had never seen—to remain calm and still beneath the hands of humans, to be separated from the trees for a time. Those who were residents blessed us with their individualism—I never knew these creatures could have such personalities. I had only ever seen or heard these birds at a distance before. Up close, I was always in awe.


On my first day working with the avian wildlife rehabilitation team, someone brought us a barred owl, lying on an old towel in a cardboard box with holes punched in it. The owl had been hit by a car, stunned. Tara called me over to the exam table. Carrie held the owl’s taloned feet in her leather-gloved hands, using her forearms to keep the bird’s long wings tucked in at its sides. There were no visible injuries. Carefully, Tara began a thorough exam, explaining as she adeptly felt each bone beneath feathers, stretched the wings, shone a flashlight to look into the bird’s deep brown eyes. She gently blew the bird’s feathers, causing them to part and reveal the owl’s ears. I leaned in, fascinated. I had never seen a bird’s ears before, or even considered them, for that matter. I peered inside the owl’s ear: the soft pink flesh, curling into a cavern in a pattern not so different from my own. Owls’ eyes are so large, you can see the back of their eyeballs by looking into their ears; their hearing is so phenomenal, they can hear a mouse scurrying beneath the snow. Looking into the pink swirl of that ear, my own sense of hearing rushed away. Tara’s voice, the metal door slamming in the next room, the other avian patients shuffling in their enclosures—all sounded incredibly distant. “I think I need to sit down,” I barely heard myself say as I found my way to the stool in the corner. Someone helped me from the stool to the cold, cement floor as lightheadedness and nausea overcame me. This vasovagal reaction: was it mere queasiness at seeing, up close, the anatomy of the barred owl? Or somehow, in that moment, did I absorb the owl’s trauma and pain?


Julia, Amy, and I stayed after work one day to learn how to splint a bird’s leg. On the counter were toothpicks, pieces of wire, Popsicle sticks, and SAM splints cut into bird-sized pieces. We would choose our splint based on the size of the bird we would use to practice. If a bird ever died in our care, we wrapped it in plastic, made a label with masking tape and a permanent marker, and kept it in the freezer, and Tara had pulled a few for the evening’s lesson. They ranged in size from a scarlet tanager to a black vulture. I chose the barred owl. Tara slid it across the counter toward me. Something caught my attention as she did: a smell that was warm and comforting, so unlike the semi-frozen cadaver that lay before me. I attempted to discretely move my face closer to the owl, whose eyelids were closed in silence. The smell wafted toward me. I moved my fingers through the breast feathers of the owl, a million times softer than I could have imagined. “This owl smells good,” I said, feeling crazy. “You’re not the first person I’ve heard say that barred owls smell good,” Tara said, moving on to a diagram of a bird’s skeleton. I leaned forward again. The owl smelled like baking. Like flour, like sugar, like a kitchen warmed by the oven. The fringes of an owl’s feathers look like eyelashes. With each detail of the owl’s body as delicate as that, it didn’t seem so strange to imagine this owl flying through the kitchen, amongst pastries, its feather tips dusting flour on the counter as they dip and dust the fresh-fallen snow.


Amy had let her dishes pile up again. They filled both halves of the sink, stacked one atop the other, teetering. Sometimes you had no choice but to do them for her. This time, she brought her laptop next to the kitchen sink to watch a TV show while she washed her dishes. The hot water produced steam that rose and enshrouded the kitchen window. There was still snow on the ground, but the days were getting longer, so there was some daylight left as Julia and I went about our evenings and Amy diligently finished her task at the kitchen sink, the water running. We were in an adjoining room when we heard her shout, “HOLY SHIT! It’s a barred owl!!” She slammed her laptop shut. We both came running. We joined Amy at the kitchen window, wiped away the condensation, and looked outside. Our backyard included a deck that had started to fall apart. A single post stood about five feet tall at one corner of the deck. Perched dreamily atop the post was a barred owl, hunkered down, its feathers puffed warmly around it. It looked perfect there, with the sky approaching twilight and the brown reeds of winter swaying in the background. Amy couldn’t explain her excitement, but it didn’t matter—we all felt the same. It didn’t matter that we saw our resident barred owls at work every day; it didn’t matter that injured ones were brought into our care each week. This was a wild barred owl. It wasn’t here for the lab mice that we defrosted each evening; it wasn’t here for rest and relaxation. It was on its own, it had survived the winter, it had found food to hunt despite the snow, which lay two feet deep from November till February. We stood at the kitchen window, our breath fogging the glass more than the hot water from the faucet had, watching the owl until the sky grew dark. We never saw it move from its perch.


When the snow melted, Julia and I put on wool layers and running shoes and ran from our home on Route 4 to a side street, downhill, over the bridge, past the golf course, past the homes we could never afford. I hadn’t run since the fall, and my quads quivered and my lungs felt shallow. I carried on, trying to keep up, as we began to ascend. Julia was several hundred feet ahead of me as the pavement wound uphill around the trees whose buds had yet to bloom. The forest was still made up of browns and grays; the green-to-come was several weeks away. Around a corner, I lost sight of her, but as I continued, I saw her stopped on the side of the road, looking at the trees. She heard me approaching, and without a sound, she made eye contact with me and then pointed into the woods. I staggered uphill until I was beside her, then looked to where she pointed. There, not ten feet from the side of the road, about ten feet above our heads, a barred owl perched on a branch, napping. Its chocolatey feathers made it nearly indistinguishable from the trees that surrounded it; I wondered how Julia had spotted it. Its eyes were mostly closed, perhaps left slightly open to observe us. I was ashamed by my ragged breathing as my lungs attempted to compensate for the hill I had just climbed. The owl was so silent, so still; I was nothing but a disturbance.


We kept two barred owls in an enclosure together. During the spring health check-up we gave to each of the resident birds, we found that one of the barred owls was getting too skinny. She was as old as me. Maybe the other owl in her enclosure was eating most of the food, but more likely, she was just getting old. We brought her back to the rehab enclosures to more closely monitor her food consumption. In the evenings, if I was returning a raptor to its enclosure past normal work hours, I would hear the old barred owl call across the campus: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” The hoots and caws of her former roommate would echo back to her. All night, I imagined them calling back and forth, finding comfort in the other’s calls even when they could not find comfort in the other’s presence. Through the darkness, their calls resounded, connecting them where human-made barriers prevented their union. After a few days of separation from her partner, it was decided that perhaps being in a new enclosure was causing too much stress on the old owl, that maybe she had a better chance of gaining weight in the home she had known for the past ten years. She was moved back to her original enclosure at the end of the workday. The next morning, I unlocked the padlock that kept the gate to the bird enclosures shut. I wrapped the cold chain around a post, grateful that I hadn’t yet given up winter’s gloves, slid the gate open, and began to walk past the enclosures. The barred owls’ enclosure was after the bald eagles, golden eagles, and great horned owls. Each bird looked at me with some kind of distaste, the quiet of their early morning interrupted. But when I reached the barred owls, my heart ached at what I saw. Despite the various places designed specifically for these injured birds to find a place to perch, the two had found their place together: they sat, side by side, on a branch that hung like a swing from the roof. Their commitment to each other, throughout their nights apart, and now, reunited, was almost too much to bear. I watched them, and they stared back at me in unison.

Jenna Gersie’s writing has appeared in Orion, The Goose, Dirt, and Kudzu House, among others. She is an editor for The Hopper and Green Writers Press and teaches literature and writing at The Island School. She is passionate about learning about new places and discovering meanings of home.


by Philippe Atherton-Blenkiron

“Pigs […] are leading pretty miserable lives.” – Peter Singer

I exist under a pink sky;
a canopy of blankets lined with caricature,
stitched-up with greed and mud. A veil that paints me

a harlequin fool – nose pressed hard against the glass.
Staring through quasi-human eyes
in search of silver linings. My skies

are cloudless, by the way – if I’d the chance to look.
And look, no pot of gold either (or pearls for that matter)
ruddy with ombre spectrum. But, in my head,

I speak of a blue, and of the vivid grass’ hue,
in your child’s voice.
Hu-weeh, these Romantic words make nothing

but a proverbial “ear” of my cause.
(And French doesn’t help, with its nicknames.)
So give it to me Saxon, man. Call me sweeeen.

Give me shit! But don’t expect me to be happy.

Philippe Atherton-Blenkiron holds an MA in Creative Writing from Keele University, and is one-third of the editorial Triumvirate at the His debut collection The Pustoy – a dystopian novella in verse – was published by Dagda Publishing in 2014, and his other work can be found squatting in a collection of online and print publications. He works in education, maintains a vegan diet, and is heavily involved in music – playing various instruments in both metal and folk bands.

Giant Otters and Gold Fever

by Stephanie V Sears

It is a short flight between Cuzco and Puerto Maldonado in Peru yet the contrast is drastic, almost surreal between the severe Andean slopes and the lush jungle plain where I am headed in an attempt to see Pteronura brasiliensis or Giant otter. At close to six feet in length the mustelid  deserves this qualifier compared to its better known, smaller cousin Lutra lutra, the Eurasian otter. Diurnal, noisy and family-oriented in its habits, the marvelous Pteronura seems, nonetheless, to have passed, for the most part, under the general public radar. Many even well–traveled and educated people confess to not having been aware of the existence of a giant otter with a white fur bib as identification card, and the teeth and muscle to overcome co-predators such as caiman and anaconda.

As I look out onto the apparently endless expanse of jungle below, the oversight does not seem at first very surprising to me. My goal to find the giant otter looks like a real challenge. The species lives in areas that until fairly recently were known only to local tribes, hunters and the occasional field scientist.

But between the 1950s and 1970s the animal was easily targeted because of its native curiosity and communicative nature, and therefore hunted to near extinction for its highly valued, soft dark brown fur.  During those twenty years some 20,000 pelts are estimated to have been exported from Peru to Europe; a conservative estimate at that. Since 1973 some sixty-five otters in Manu National Park have, consequently, been put under full legal protection. Unfortunately, this measure and a more provisional protection law declared in 1990 for Madre de Dios, has not prevented otters from being either accidentally killed when caught in fishing nets, or intentionally so, by angry fishermen. Twenty-one giant otters were reported accidentally killed between 2006 and 2012, but over sixty of them were ‘executed’ by indigenous people competing with the otter for turtle meat.

If given the chance to thrive in the region, a total of 128 individuals recorded for the whole southeastern Peru are destined to become both the flagship and umbrella species, in other words, the magnet for eco-tourism and the measure of environmental health for the whole region.

Listed by the IUCN as either endangered or vulnerable, depending on the South American region, giant otters are indeed found in groups of varying size in parts of the Guianas, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru: groups as small as 30 in Paraguay, to an average of 250 in Ecuador, to the largest group of 2,500 in the Amazon Pantanal, the world’s biggest wetland. Pteronura is officially extinct in Uruguay and Argentina.

Yet despite optimistic announcements of localized population increases, the number of giant otters is, on the whole, decreasing in numbers according to the IUCN.

The Madre de Dios region appears as a prime example of how human activity and conflicting interests can lead to disaster for all sides: a nature-disfiguring and health-hazardous gold-mining activity on the one hand, a depleted nature and eco-tourism on the other.  In 2004 a formal zoning and monitoring plan was created to handle problems in the Tambopata-Candamo reserve such as illegal logging and hunting, conflicts of interest between eco-tourism lodges, illegal building, poorly organized and intrusive group visits. Evidently, as I discover before even landing, these zoning and protection measures are still far from effective. For in the midst of the variegated greens of the tropical canopy, logged and agricultural patches cut out of the jungle signal the worst to come. Near the juncture with the Tambopata River the banks of the Madre de Dios River are blemished by huge red-brown ulcers spreading into the nearby forest like some bleeding leprosy. Unsure of what I am looking at from the plane window, but already pessimistic, my fears are confirmed upon arrival at the airport when my eco-lodge’s agent grimly announces that an illegal gold miners’ strike has blocked off all roads to the river with boulders and cut down trees. The river is what I and other eco-tourists have to reach so as to board the motorized canoes that will take us to our respective lodges at the brim of the jungle.

After a two hour wait in a butterfly farm we hope that our bus will be allowed through.  No such luck. We walk. Some leave their luggage at the farm, taking only tooth brush, camera and a change of underwear. Others, more mistrustful, like myself, drag all their luggage for an hour and a half under the hot sun through the main thoroughfare of Puerto Maldonado.  Solidarity, cemented by exasperation, is born among us during that time, as we wonder who among the locals staring at us from the houses are the gold miners. Some locals clap and cheer as we go by, drawing from us unambiguous if sotto voce reactions.  A police car drives back and forth, possibly in a vague attempt to foil a further deterioration of the situation, but, clearly, not to help us with our bags.

At last, with the fresh air of the open river on our faces, we leave behind the vaguely dangerous mood of Puerto Maldonado; though not quite, since, on our way, we notice gold mining equipment lying in wait on the beaches and further on, some miners busy working, notwithstanding the strike.

Finally, the jungle and the evening wrap us in a cocoon of squawks, roars, and the underlying quiet of an undiminished nature. The proximity of disaster is temporarily forgotten.

Two days later my guide Hugo and I make an attempt to see the giant otters. We walk for three quarters of an hour along a muddy path from Tambopata River through the jungle to the Sandoval Lake. A fairly easy promenade, a kind of eco-tourist thoroughfare under the canopy agitated by parrots, capuchin and howler monkeys, a number of furry tarantulas poised on the entrance of their nest like doormen.

A new lodge is being built just behind the first line of trees on the Tambopata bank, and for a while the sound of hammering follows us.

A the end of the jungle path, we find our canoe tied to a small dock and we glide onto the peaceful oxbow lake bordered by tall palm trees and bird-laden shrub, when suddenly we glimpse in the distance the telltale rippling under some over-hanging branches. In silence, we navigate towards it.

One or two otters are still reclining like Riviera sunbathers on low branches when we arrive; others, previously invisible to us, promptly dive into the lake. Seven, eight, twelve? It is a big family. They keep ahead of us, swimming close to the banks, then stopping, periscoping, aiming at us loud, explosive snorts, followed by a capella whining. Our careful pursuit, their strange approach-avoidance (which may ensue from regularly seeing tourists) continue. One adult breaks the surface with a fish in its mouth and devours it on the move, displaying impressive canines.  What is striking to me at this close range, however, is the comic-strip cuteness of these whiskered, more catlike than doggish faces, despite their local name of Lobos del Rio, and their demonstrative curiosity and evident intelligence.  I imitate their whines to see what reaction I will get and receive in reply a tirade of noises, some of which resemble the whistles and clicks of a dolphin. Hugo and I look at each other, cowed into silence by what sounds to us like a severe rebuke. Have I said something wrong?

Plunging and eating along the way, the otters progress toward the center of the oxbow while demonstrating the same combination of curiosity and distrust to a newly arrived canoe full of frantic photographers. But soon the otter family has had enough and retreats to their inviolable sanctuary forbidden to us, on the farther side of the lake.

Like their smaller cousin Lutra lutra, the giant otter is what scientists call a ‘bio-indicator’ of the quality of the surrounding environment. In short, if the environment is healthy for the otter it is a guarantee of healthiness for humans.  Pteronura’s reproduction and survival depends principally on an uncontaminated nature but also on very measured disturbances by humans.  A poorly managed eco-tourism, therefore, constitutes as much of a critical threat to the giant otter within its present limited protected territory, as gold mining and deforestation does.  Even our quiet visit by canoe affects the otter’s reproductive potential. Consequently, scientists now recommend, not only monitoring the number of tourists that visit the lake at one given time, but abandoning the use of canoes altogether in favor of observatory towers and platforms discreetly placed on the edges of the lake.

Joel Mendoza, a specialist of the giant otter at the Zoological Society of Frankfurt, explains that Tambopata-Cambano reserve is highly vulnerable because of a high and increasing human density, (the Madre de Dios population was around 49,000 in 1990), much denser than in neighboring Manu National Park. The lack of efficient and strict land management facilitates illegal activities that affect the forest. Gold mining attracts poor farmers from other regions of Peru such as the Sierra, Puno, Ayacucho and Apurimac and leads to a double disaster in that it also destroys forest, (50,000 hectares of deforestation found in 2012 to have been caused directly by gold mining in the region, reported by the Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental) and simultaneously contaminates air, water, fauna and people.

The expedient, or ‘artisanal’, illegal use of mercury by which gold is extracted, embroiled with local politics, has had and continues to have catastrophic, long-term effects on the surrounding nature and human health. It has spread out of control to new regions: from the rivers Madre de Dios, Malinowski and Colorado to the rivers Las Piedras and Pariamanu.  For obvious political reasons, as explains an official contact at the Ministry of Exterior Affairs specialized in the sustainable use of the environment, the level of unemployment in some rural areas is such that the government has somewhat tolerated this ‘free for all’. One means by which the central government has tried to oppose illegal gold mining, adds my governmental contact, is by cutting off supplies in fuel needed for the dragas or mining machinery.

Thirty thousand illegal gold miners are said to operate in the region, organized in some five associations. Their essential ingredient to extract gold is mercury. Cheaply obtained, it is heated with an ore amalgam so as to isolate the gold and offers the benefit of rapid results in an operation necessitating only one person. But the mercury evaporates during the process so that an ill-protected gold miner, and anyone nearby, inhales the poisonous emissions. Called methyl-mercury after infiltrating water, mercury is then drunk unknowingly or absorbed through eating fish, themselves contaminated through the gills. The larger the fish the more mercury is taken in. Levels of mercury in urine and blood samples analyzed in the region have been found to be dangerously high, pregnant women and children being the most vulnerable to this neurotoxin.

A number of methods exist to alleviate the impact in the use of mercury; while   isolating the equipment prevents human inhalation and absorption into the environment; borax, a natural and cheap mineral used in detergent, is considered to be the best substitute for mercury. It obtains a higher weight of gold without the health hazards. If so, why has this shift from mercury to borax not been urgently made in Peru , when levels of mercury found in 58% of fish samples are considered to be above acceptable levels for giant otters, and in a lesser but significant percentage of the sample (17.6%), for humans?  In 2012, in fact, the UNEP drafted an agreement on reducing and finally, eliminating the use of mercury.

According to the IUCN, the 10 or 12 giant otters in Peru’s Sandoval Lake have particular genetic importance as an evolutionary unit, yet unfortunately, in all of South America, they are perhaps the most hard hit by man’s abuse of nature. Parts of the jungle in the region have been completely scraped off the ground for gold mining purposes and the replacement of this form of high-biodiversity in its integrity is virtually impossible once it has been destroyed. (Concerning the amounts of mercury delivered into nature, it is significant to know that mercury is already naturally high in Amazonian soils, therefore deforestation contributes to its release into water).  There are, consequently, few projects at the moment that attempt to reconstitute the destroyed jungle.  Nonetheless, between 2008 and 2011 the AIDER NGO based in New Delhi and founded by Mr. Virenda Kumar Jha, worked to recreate an organic base by using the plants Guaba and Kutsu for the regrowth of a natural forest. Any other type of reforestation is considered unable to re-establish the vital relationship between fauna and native flora and absorb as much carbon as the authentic forest.

With a predicted 40% reduction of the Amazon forest by 2030, those directly involved in the destruction of the Madre de Dios nature must urgently weigh the advantages and disadvantages in their choice of a livelihood: a hazardous employment both in terms of health and long-term earnings, or the prospect of a sustainable future dependent on a thriving nature that more and more tourists are eager to see? What is the most valuable asset, gold or a rich and rare biodiversity?

At the heart of this dilemma (a very real one for a poor individual), has emerged a change in the general attitude towards nature, and by the same token, towards animal rights. Is it humanity’s right to invade and destroy the way of life of other creatures as if these were disposable objects, as humanity has done for centuries? More to the point, is not such a mentality suicidal for our own species? The giant otter, in its intolerance to pollution – reflecting our own vulnerability to contaminated environments – offers a clear reply. It is.

Pteronura favors sandy bottomed and rocky ‘black waters’ frequently found in forested areas. The equation is a simple one: if we pursue our destruction of the Amazon forest the giant otter will disappear for good while our environmental troubles will worsen. This is how closely our own physical and psychological welfare is entangled with the sustainable survival of this species and of others.

Alas, my attempt to leave the region three days later is just as chaotic as my arrival. The strike has hardened despite governmental attempts at dialogue with the miners. We are forced to leave at 2 am in the morning and travel by boat well beyond Puerto Maldonado to avoid being blocked on our way to the airport.  In the dim grey light of pre-dawn, we wait by a dirt track where we are picked up and driven in a file of four or five small buses through back roads to the airport. This time we have the added protection of a small police escort.

Hugo, my Inkaterra guide and a passionate naturalist, informs me weeks later by email that the illegal gold miner strike continued well after my departure, forcing him and other eco-tourism professionals into indefinite economic inactivity.

Gold mining in Madre de Dios might be tolerated for economic reasons to continue in safer conditions, but it should take into account that other species, a fortiori, large mammal predators, literally need ‘their space’.  The space is the Amazon jungle in this case, as vital in its prime condition to us as it is to the other species that inhabit it. The giant otter’s fate will, therefore, essentially determine our own.



Stephanie V Sears is a French and American ethnologist specialized in South Pacific societies, a free-lance journalist, essayist and poet whose essays have appeared in CerisePress, The Cresset, The Montreal Review, Wildlifeextra, Insula.

Mei Lan

by Brenda Kay Ledford

Longs for a home
she’s never seen
ancient land, legends

a small creature
stretched out
napping on a limb

like any animal
caged behind glass
pleading for freedom

light bends toward China
nibbling bamboo
puddling rice fields

mountains roll
emeralds and sapphire
black patches round eyes

she peeps at you
wanting to be alone

the panda cries
and reorchestrates
an elephant’s trumpet

Brenda Kay Ledford is a member of North Carolina Writers’ Network and listed with “A Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers.”  Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies.  Aldrich Press published her poetry book, CREPE ROSES, that won the 2015 Paul Green Award from the North Carolina Society of Historians.