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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

November 14, 2003

Air Date: November 14, 2003



Whistleblower Faces the Ax

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Jack Spadaro, the superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in West Virginia, is about to lose his job. That’s because he spoke out against federal and industry failures connected to the investigation of one of the largest environmental accidents in Appalachia— the 2000 coal slurry spill along the Kentucky/West Virginia border. Guest host Bruce Gellerman talks with Jack Spadaro about what went wrong with the investigation and the charges against him. (11:00)

Environmental Health Note/Testosterone Therapy / Diane Toomey

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Testosterone therapy is becoming increasingly prevalent among men, and now a scientific body is calling for more rigorous tests to determine the benefits and the risks. Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports. (01:20)


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This week, we have facts about Piltdown Man. Fifty years ago, a skull thought to be the missing link between ape and man was exposed as one of the biggest hoaxes in the history of science. (02:00)

Reclaiming the Colorado / Ilsa Setziol

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The great Colorado River rushes out of the Rockies and across the southwest. It used to gush into the gulf of Baja California. But agriculture and cities now drain the river before it even reaches its end. Reporter Ilsa Setziol of KPCC reports nature is making amazing use of the meager water that does reach the gulf. (07:30)

Lewis & Clark Trail / Barrett Golding

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This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Thousands of Americans are expected to visit historic points along the trail of discovery. Producer Barrett Golding cycled the entire trail and brings us this audio postcard from the Great Falls Lower Portage campsite near a place in Montana where the Great Plains meet the Rockies. (04:00)


Caught Up in the Raptor

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Ask people what their favorite animal is and you're likely to get answers like cats, dogs, maybe a horse or wolf thrown in occasionally. Ask nature author and commentator Sy Montgomery. She tells us why turkey vulture is her answer. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Farting Fish / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that herring might be using something that resembles flatulence to communicate. (01:20)

Who Let the Cats Out? / Bruce Schimmel

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Cats are dear to many people, but perhaps just as many find them a nuisance. That’s because large numbers of stray and feral cats are running rampant in both rural and urban areas across the country. As Bruce Schimmel reports from Milton, Delaware, there’s a number of ways to thin the homeless cat population and some ways are more effective and popular than others. (08:30)

Florida’s Ferals

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Feral cats living in an exclusive Florida community may be causing the near-extinction of an endangered species of rat. Guest host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Craig Pittman, environment reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. (04:00)

The Meatrix

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As Neo and Morpheus do battle with the virtual world on the big screen, a spin-off of “The Matrix” is making it big on the Internet. Guest host Bruce Gellerman talks with Jonah Sachs, creator of “The Meatrix,” an email campaign against factory farming, that takes its cue from Hollywood. (04:00)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce GellermanGUESTS: Jack Spadaro, Craig Pittman, Jonah SachsREPORTERS: Ilsa Setziol, Barrett Golding, Bruce SchimmelCOMMENTATOR: Sy MontgomeryNOTES: Diane Toomey, Cynthia Graber


GELLERMAN: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thirty years ago, a sludge dam burst near a West Virginia coal mine. One hundred twenty-five people died in the disaster. A government whistleblower says it never should have happened.

SPADARO: Many government agencies were aware of those dams and knew that they were unsafe and that there were individuals in those agencies who, had they raised the alarm, probably would have saved the lives of the people from Buffalo Creek. So from that time on, I promised myself I would never walk away.

GELLERMAN: Now, he’s about to be fired by the Bush Administration for exposing environmental abuses in coal country. Also, The Meatrix Revulsion – activists parody Hollywood to denounce factory farming.

MOOPHEUS: Take the red pill and I’ll show you the truth.

GELLERMAN: Those stories – just ahead - on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Whistleblower Faces the Ax

GELLERMAN: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Coal mine safety official Jack Spadaro is about to lose his job as the superintendent of the National Mine Safety and Health Academy in Beckley, West Virginia.

Three years ago, he was a member of a panel investigating the cause of one of the worst environmental disasters in Appalachian history, when 300 million gallons of liquid mine waste burst through a lagoon at the Martin County Coal Company’s site in eastern Kentucky. The spill polluted rivers and wells with thick black sludge. More than twice as much material was spilled along the Kentucky/West Virginia border than the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

Spadaro resigned in protest from the investigative panel, charging it went too easy on the coal company and failed to hold federal regulators accountable. Now, Bush Administration officials say they’re going to fire Spadaro. Jack Spadaro joins us from the studios of West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Charleston. So Mr. Spadaro, why are you being fired?

(Photo: Vivian Stockman, OHVEC)

SPADARO: I’m being fired because I told the truth about the mine disaster and insisted that the agency responsible for investigating it hold the mining company accountable for its negligence, and also to look at its own policies and procedures change them so that this wouldn’t happen again.

GELLERMAN: So you’re saying it’s because you’re a whistle-blower. But the government says it’s because you, you know, abused your power, that you misused your government credit card.

SPADARO: Yes, they say that, yes. And I think that most people who know me know that these are trivial charges. And we’ve actually answered all of the charges that were made.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Spadaro, let me go back to the investigation of the coal slurry spill in Kentucky in 2000. The waste from coal processing plants is held in these large lagoons, I guess. And this one failed. My understanding is that the bottom of it essentially fell out from it?


GELLERMAN: Now you’re saying that it could have been prevented.



SPADARO: The best way to have done it would have been to simply stop using that lagoon. That would have been the safest way. And it also could have been prevented by going to a system that didn’t require a lagoon. The company had actually used that kind of system before. It was a filtration system that created a dry waste product, and there would be no need for a lagoon at all.

GELLERMAN: Now the government knew this earlier, back in the 90s, and I guess the company did, as well.

SPADARO: Yes, the company did and we have testimony from a company consultant, Mr. Scott Ballard, who said that they knew at that time in 1994, to quote from his testimony: “There would be another breakthrough.” He knew it and when we asked him who in the company knew it, he named five other company officials and engineers.

GELLERMAN: Yet the investigative panel that you were a member of doesn’t make mention of this, does it?

SPADARO: No, it doesn’t. And that’s one of the objections I had to the final report and the reason that I wouldn’t put my name on the report, even though Assistant Secretary Lauriski tried to make me do it.

GELLERMAN: He’s the Assistant Secretary of Labor for mine safety.


GELLERMAN: But aren’t they responsible for enforcing the laws in this area? So why would it want to make things easier for a company that caused such an environmental disaster?

SPADARO: I don’t know. I do know that the company, Massey Energy, has – during the time that they were being investigated, the CEO for Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, met several times privately with Dave Lauriski. And I do know, also, that Massey Energy made at least a $100,000 contribution to the Republican senatorial re-election committee.

GELLERMAN: Now, Massey Energy owns Martin County Coal?

SPADARO: Yes. And that Republican committee was chaired by Mitch McConnell, who’s one of the senators from Kentucky, and he’s the husband of Elaine Chao, who is Secretary of Labor. And the Secretary of Labor oversees the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

GELLERMAN: What’s the status of the government’s charges against the company?

SPADARO: Initially, the team members recommended eight to ten serious violations. Mr. Laruiski and the team leader at that time reduced those violations to two. And one of those charges went before an administrative law judge and was thrown out because it was unclear, and I agree with the administrative law judge, actually. So, there’s only one remaining violation against the company. That’s being appealed by Massey Energy and Martin County Coal.

GELLERMAN: What are the total fines against the company?

SPADARO: Now it’s down to $55,000.

GELLERMAN: You had a pretty good job working for the government. You made, what, a little over $100,000 dollars a year?

SPADARO: I made about $112,000 dollars a year, actually.

GELLERMAN: You must have known that you were putting your livelihood, your future, your career at risk by being a whistle-blower.

SPADARO: Yes, I was fully aware of that. And I was willing to accept the consequences because I think that in something this important, that involves public health and safety, one should not compromise. I, for many years, had a good reputation in my profession. And I worked 30 years ago on the investigation of a dam failure in southern West Virginia. It was a coal waste dam, similar to this one.

GELLERMAN: That was the Buffalo Creek disaster, right?


GELLERMAN: That was awful. I think something like 125 people died?

SPADARO: Yes, 125 people died. And I was a young engineer. I was teaching at West Virginia University then, and I was asked to go down and work on a study of the causes for that dam failure, as well. I went through the history of the construction of the dam, and found that there were many government agencies who were aware of those dams and knew that they were unsafe. And there were individuals in those agencies who, had they raised the alarm, probably would have saved the lives of the people on Buffalo Creek. And so, from that time on, I promised myself that I would never walk away from something that serious that could cause people to lose their lives or cause serious damage. So, when I approached the Martin County Coal site, we made it a thorough and complete investigation. And I wanted to make sure that we covered all areas so that something like this couldn’t happen again. That was really my only objective.

GELLERMAN: But this must have had a profound effect upon you personally.

SPADARO: At Buffalo Creek, yes. There were women and children, whole families who died in a matter of moments, and… I never forgot. (long pause)… It’s just, still, difficult to talk about. The Buffalo Creek disaster pointed out to me and to many others the terrible toll that was being taken on the people of the coalfields and Appalachia, and on the environment. And it did guide me through my whole career.

GELLERMAN: But if you’re correct, you’re not just charging the government and this company with callous disregard, but really with, basically, allowing a disaster to happen.

SPADARO: Yes, they did. They knew well in 1994 at Martin County Coal that another breakthrough would occur. And instead of discontinuing the use of that impoundment, or taking measures that would prevent it from happening, they added another 80 feet of slurry and water, thereby increasing the possibility of a major disaster many-fold.

GELLERMAN: Are there other mines and lagoons like this in the region now?

SPADARO: Yes. Nationwide, there are of total of roughly 635 coal waste dams. And about 240 of those coal waste dams sit over top of abandoned underground mine workings. And there have been other breakthroughs. There have been dozens of other breakthroughs before and after the Martin County disaster.

GELLERMAN: So, you wouldn’t be surprised if there was another breakthrough and another disaster?

SPADARO: It could happen any day, yes.

GELLERMAN: So, what needs to be done?

SPADARO: What needs to be done is all of these impoundments, all of these lagoons, need to have thorough geo-technical investigations. Then, if they are found to be unsafe, they need to be closed.

GELLERMAN: So is the Bush Administration, the Department of Labor, are they listening?

SPADARO: I don’t think so. I haven’t found anybody in management at the highest levels of the Mine Safety and Management Administration who are paying attention to this problem at this time.

GELLERMAN: Jack Spadoro is a mine safety official facing dismissal from his job with the federal government. Mr. Spadaro, thank you very much.

SPADARO: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.

GELLERMAN: Officials at MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, declined to comment on Jack Spadaro’s employment there. A spokesperson said the agency does not comment on personnel matters. The U.S. Department of Labor oversees MSHA. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was not available to talk to us but department spokesperson Ed Frank provided this statement:

FRANK: The Labor Department has longstanding procedures in place to deal with accident investigations. These are spearheaded by non-political career employees. So, to allege the administration or Secretary of Labor is involved in this investigation is completely false. The accident report is a public document, as is the internal review. Both are available on the department’s web site. The recommendation by the investigators cited the company on two counts and it was fined the maximum allowed by law. And finally, of course, if politics were any motive, why would we want to cover up for an incident and oversight problems that occurred on a previous administration’s watch? It just doesn’t make sense.

GELLERMAN: Labor Secretary Chao’s husband is Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the state where the Martin County Coal is located. Asked to comment on Jack Spadaro’s accusation, a spokesman for the senator says – quote – Mr. Spadaro has an exaggerated sense of his own importance.

[MUSIC: The Cure “10:15 Saturday Night” STARING AT THE SEA –THE SINGLES 1976 - 1985 (Fiction / Elektra - 1986)]

Related links:
- MSHA investigation report
- National Academies report on coal slurry impoundments in Appalachia
- U.S. Office of Surface Mining slurry spill response
- Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition’s archive of slurry impoundment articles

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Environmental Health Note/Testosterone Therapy

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: from a trickle to a turbulence. Getting the Colorado River to flow again to the Gulf of California. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: Commercials abound nowadays touting the benefits of testosterone replacement therapy for men. But there’s no clear scientific information about either the benefits – or the risks--of these treatments. The Institute of Medicine recently announced that rigorous clinical trials should be done on testosterone use, but initially on a small scale. This recommendation was made after a request to investigate the phenomenon came from the National Institute of Aging, sparked by the growing trend of older men using this therapy as levels of their natural testosterone decrease.

According to the Institute of Medicine, the limited studies that have been done on testosterone therapy didn’t show any major side effects. But there isn’t enough evidence to say definitively that the treatments are safe, since research subjects haven’t been followed long enough. So the Institute recommends limited tests that follow men for up to two years to see if there are benefits in terms of improved strength, sexual function, cognitive function, and general well-being from testosterone replacement therapy, all claims made by its advocates.

If benefits do exist, then the panel recommends a long-term study to see these higher levels of testosterone increase chances of developing prostate cancer.

That’s this week’s Health Note, I’ve Diane Toomey.


GELLERMAN: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant “The Night Rider” STRATOSPHERE BOOGIE: THE FLAMING GUITARS OF SPEEDY WEST & JIMMY BRYANT (Razor & Tie - 1995)]

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GELLERMAN: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

[MUSIC: The Flaming Lips “Are You A Hypnotist” YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS (Warner Bros. Records - 2002)]

GELLERMAN: It seemed like the discovery of a lifetime. Amateur anthropologist Richard Dawson suspected the skull he dug up in southern England in 1912 was the long sought connection between ape and man. Scientists agreed and newspapers headlined “Missing Link Discovered in Piltdown Quarry.”

But Richard Milner, contributing editor for Natural History magazine, says there was a bit of old English bluster behind the celebrated find.

MILNER: The British really wanted to accept Piltdown from the start because they were somewhat jealous of France that had all these wonderful cave paintings, and had Cro-Magnon remains, and their Neanderthals. And the Germans had their Neanderthals. So the English were hungry to have the earliest Englishman.

GELLERMAN: Forty years later, scientists decried Piltdown as a great hoax. An orangutan’s jaw, a 500-year-old human skull, and filed teeth were all chemically treated to look prehistoric. But, who done it? Dawson? Or maybe one of his colleagues? Milner points an accusing finger at a celebrated mystery writer of the time.

MILNER: Despite the intellectual science of “Sherlock Holmes,” Conan Doyle was really something of a mystic. He believed you could communicate with spirits from the beyond. And the scientists ridiculed him, laughed at him that he didn’t know the meaning of evidence. So Conan Doyle, in this scenario, thought, I’ll teach them something about the meaning of evidence.

GELLERMAN: Patrons to Britain’s Natural History Museum are free to sleuth for clues and try to unravel the mystery for themselves this month. The forged Piltdown skull will be displayed there for the first time since its discovery. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: The Flaming Lips “Are You A Hypnotist” YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS (Warner Bros. Records - 2002)]

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Reclaiming the Colorado

GELLERMAN: The Colorado River powered the growth of the southwest and sustains its economy. It waters crops and fills bathtubs. Before the U.S. built massive dams across it, the Colorado roared into Baja and Sonora, Mexico, creating vast wetlands, and flowed into the Gulf of California. But today, the mighty river rarely reaches the gulf. From member station KPCC in Los Angeles, Ilsa Setziol reports that Mexicans are hoping to reclaim the river, restore its delta - and they’re looking north for help.


SETZIOL: Onesimo Gonzales sits in an outdoor kitchen, singing traditional songs and reminiscing. He looks out onto a dusty landscape of sand, rock and shrubs. But his steady eyes also gaze inward, to a time more than half a century ago.

GONZALES [IN SPANISH]: It used to be very beautiful this time of year. The plants would all be blooming. Everything smelled wonderful. We had lots of water. Everywhere. There was a lot to eat.

SETZIOL: The 70-year-old Gonzales is tribal chief of the native Cucapá people in Northern Baja. He remembers before the United States dammed the Colorado River, there were lush woodlands here – many deer, as well as vast wetlands filled with fish and birds.

GONZALES [IN SPANISH]: Now, everything is dry. The ironwood is the only thing alive, that old desert tree and us are the only things that survive here.

SETZIOL: Gonzales says he just can’t understand it. How could the United States take almost all of the water from the Colorado River without considering how it would ruin the delta and the Cucapá people? Fishing used to be at the center of Cucapá life. To save the fish, the government has banned much of the fishing around the delta. Gonzales says Mexican fishermen are so poor they often ignore the prohibition.

GONZALES [IN SPANISH]: The government saying no more fishing is like someone cutting off our heads.

SETZIOL: But as big as the U.S. dams are, they can’t always hold back the full U.S. share of the river – 90 percent. In recent years, after big rainfalls, the reservoirs filled up and the United States had to let excess water flow down river to Mexico. This overflow and other flukes have led to a small revival of nature in pockets of the delta.


SETZOIL: About 30 miles southeast of Gonzales’ village biologist Osvel Hinojosa navigates a canoe through a large marsh filled with blond cattails. Yellow-headed blackbirds are perched atop the tall plants. [BIRDS CHIRPING] Marsh wrens collect strands for their nests. But this afternoon, Hinojosa is searching for birds that are seldom seen, because they live hidden in dense thickets of vegetation and because they are rare.


SETZOIL: Hinojosa turns into a canal that cuts through a large swath of cattails, swaying in the breeze. And that’s when we hear the unusual cluck that gives clapper rails their name:


SETZOIL: The abundance of Yuma clapper rails here tells Hinojosa that the Cienega is an exemplary restoration – even though it happened by accident. The marsh was created when farmers in Arizona began dumping water too salty for agriculture into the Sonoran desert. Hinojosa says the Cienega is proof that returning more water to the delta would help preserve many species that live on both sides of the border.

HINOJOSA: Very little water would make a huge difference, probably just one percent of the river water will make a huge difference, not just for the Cienega, for the whole delta.

SETZIOL: American environmental groups and the Mexican government hope the United State will let more water flow into Mexico. But the U.S. government says the issue was settled in 1944 when a treaty between the two countries divvied up the river and gave Mexico ten percent.

Bennett Raley, the Interior Department’s top water official, says additional water for the delta should come from Mexico’s share.

RALEY: Further constraining – or defining – reality is the United State’s share of the water of the Colorado River is completely allocated. And those that suggest that it’s just one percent, what they’re really talking about is taking away significant quantities of water from either Arizona, Southern California, or Nevada.

SETZIOL: Four years of drought along the river have left U.S. water agencies scrambling after every drop. So it’s not only unlikely that the delta will get more water, it’s likely it will get less. The U.S. is moving ahead with plans to desalinate the salty waste water that now sustains the Cienega marsh. And Osvel Hinojosa says the U.S. has drained its reservoirs so low that it could be years before the Delta gets any spillover again.


HINOJOSA: For the next few years we expect probably just a dry riverbed here. So all that has been restored might be lost again if we don’t do anything about it.

SETZIOL: As the sun begins to set, Hinojosa paddles toward the center of the marsh. His steel boat slides over gentle currents that murmur through the silvery pink water. Then he stops and listens to the music of the marsh.


SETZOIL: For Living on Earth, I’m Ilsa Setziol in Sonora, Mexico.


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Lewis & Clark Trail



GELLERMAN: This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark expeditions.

MALE: Paddle. C'mon harder.

GELLERMAN: We wondered who lives and works along the trail now, from the northwest coast to mouth of the Missouri.



GELLERMAN: Producer Barrett Golding bicycled the entire Lewis and Clark Trail and sent us a series of audio postcards.


GELLERMAN: Like this one from the Great Falls lower portage campsite near a place in Montana where the Great Plains meet the Rockies. Lewis and Clark made more than 600 camps during their 28 months of travel. But not one had been located – until, after more than a decade of digging – archeologist Ken Karsmizski found enough evidence to positively identify a site along the Missouri River.


KARSMIZSKI: We’re at a location that, based on the journals of Lewis and Clark, we’re at a campsite that they established on the 16th of June, 1805.


KARSMIZSKI: And what we’re looking at is a half-mile stretch of Missouri River, as the crow flies about 10 miles away from Great Falls, Montana. Lewis and Clark were able to see the great falls in 1805, and they had to move around them with probably as much as 30 tons of equipment and 33 guys. It took them a month to do that.


KARSMIZSKI: The Lewis and Clark expedition, from the time they left St. Louis, they’re out for 863 days. They make over 600 camps. This is the only place where we have enough evidence to say this is it, we have found it. And knowing that this rock right here…


KARSMIZSKI: …and this one…


KARSMIZSKI: I mean, I’m kneeling down here at the site of a campfire that they knelt at. And even as exciting is that I know that I can walk 50 feet away from here and kneel at another campfire that they built, and then walk 50 feet away from that and kneel at another campfire that they built. And when I started this, the thing that I heard more than anything else – you’re not going to find anything. These guys didn’t leave anything behind. And my response was, then how did they pick up their fires and take them with them?


KARSMIZSKI: We have found 18 campfires, 15 of those date back thousands of years. But the three fires dating to Lewis and Clark’s period are really a key. And then, as we worked around those fires we found some other things. In all, we have over 9,000 pieces of bone that we’ve collected. Within 15 feet of where we’re standing we have essentially a butchering site. And we’ve radio carbon-dated the bone, and we’re coming up with 1810, plus or minus 50. We found a gun flint. We found an iron push pin. Imagine yourself being Clark, and you can see it in the journals, what he’s doing is he’s completing the maps of the Missouri River. He’s sitting out here, he’s totally exposed to the wind. He just puts a push pin in each corner of that paper and it holds it down.


KARSMIZSKI: They’ve got a field kitchen. They’ve got portable desks. They’ve got push pins to keep their paper down. So everything they think about, and they allow for that. It’s an incredible journey. Most people say it’s the great American odyssey. This is a group of people who are out in the most forbidding country that they can imagine at their time, with virtually no knowledge. For me, it is really understanding history from a different perspective. And a part of it is also being a part of history.

When Lewis and Clark were on their expedition, and they had gotten as far as Amanden villages, and they were about to set out in the spring of 1805, Lewis took the time to write back to Jefferson, and let Jefferson know what was happening. But he also commented that they were about to set off on the real exploration, and likened himself to Columbus. Lewis likened himself to Columbus. This is a moment in world history that I’m taking a part in, is what Lewis was saying. And I think that’s a part of what I feel, in those reflective times, is that this is a part of history that I was lucky enough to take part in. I could fit the pieces together. I could come up with something tangible that has to do with Lewis and Clark. And that’s really pretty satisfying.


GELLERMAN: Ken Karsmizski is director of Oregon's Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. Barrett Golding's “Portraits of the Lewis & Clark Trail: 200 Years Later” are part of the Hearing Voices series, funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more audio, images and interviews from the trail, go to our website - livingonearth.org. And while you’re there please see our invitation to join host Steve Curwood on the next Living on Earth African Eco-Tour.

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[MUSIC: Kronos Quartet “Wawshishijay (“Our Beginning”)” PIECES OF AFRICA (Nonesuch -1992)]

CURWOOD: I’d like to invite you to join me in May on an Eco-Tour of some of Africa’s great natural areas. We’ll go on a special walking safari in South Africa’s amazing Kruger National Park. The park has 16 ecosystems. It’s home to nearly 700 species of bird and mammals. It’s a land of diversity, but Kruger is most famous for an abundance of “the big five”: lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo, and elephants. You’ll have the rare opportunity to see all these animals up close, as guides take you on day hikes and night drives. We’ll get close, but not too personal with the critters.

There are two ways that you can join the caravan. Go to living on earth dot org to find out how you can win a trip for two. You can also reserve a space by buying a ticket right now. For details, visit our website – livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org for a chance at the trip of a lifetime.

[MUSIC: Kronos Quartet “Wawshishijay (“Our Beginning”)” PIECES OF AFRICA (Nonesuch -1992)]

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations; and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council. And Paul and Marcia Ginsburg in support of excellence in public radio.

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Caught Up in the Raptor

GELLERMAN: Most birdwatchers are tracing the southern migration of a number of species these days. But commentator Sy Montgomery is keeping an eye out for one in particular. It’s a meat-eating bird.

MONTGOMERY: In Western movies, at least, a crowd of these birds wheeling above you is not a particularly good sign. It usually means you’re inches from becoming carrion. Though in flight they superficially resemble noble hawks and eagles, turkey vultures aren’t viewed with the same awe. Admittedly, some of their habits seem a bit unsettling. Their method of self-defense, for example: they are able to projectile vomit their food, sending it sailing ten feet towards an enemy. Remember that turkey vultures eat nothing but carrion, and its sojourn in the vulture's stomach does nothing to improve its odor.

The other end of the vulture can be hazardous, too. Their white legs only look white; it's really "whitewash" from the material they defecate on their legs. Because a vulture’s digestive juices actually kill bacteria, the substance, some scientists think, might work as an antiseptic wash.

(Photo: Keith Channing, The Hawk Conservancy)   

Though these behaviors might distress some people, they serve turkey vultures well. And they, in turn, serve us. Vultures’ Latin name, Cathartes, means "cleanser" – because that's what they do, clean up tons of carcasses from woods and roads. Nationwide, the turkey vulture is recovering from the depredations of DDT and prejudice. They didn’t breed . here in New Hampshire until 1979. Their spread north follows the growth of deer herds and the highway system – both providing delicious carcasses on which to dine. Imagine what the highways would look like were it not for these scavenger-angels!

But the charms of these giant, red-headed birds go deeper than that. Few people ever get to know a vulture personally; but those that do swear they have hearts of gold. Consider the turkey vulture named Fiver. In the 1970s, he was hand-raised as an orphan at a research facility in Florida. He was so attached to people he would fly down and hop after them, hoping for a head-rub. The guy who was Fiver’s favorite had a hard time getting dates.

Fiver was only looking to humans for the same sort of friendship they would expect from other turkey vultures. They are loyal creatures who mate for life, sometimes more than 60 years. Besides their social graces, they’re spectacular fliers. Turkey vultures can soar above the clouds, so high you can’t always even see them. But if you do chance to spot a vulture at fairly close range, you will notice these shiny black birds' underwings are a satiny gray. Each turkey vulture, like every cloud, has its silver lining.


GELLERMAN: Sy Montgomery is the author of: “The Wild Out Your Window.”


Related link:
Turkey Vulture Profile

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Emerging Science Note/Farting Fish

GELLERMAN: Coming up: cats gone wild. The feral felines of rural Delaware. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: Scientists have recently found that fish may be communicating with each other using what can best be described as flatulence. Ben Wilson, a biologist at the University of British Columbia, made the surprising discovery. He was researching how herring respond to different kinds of noises, such as whale sounds. And as part of his experiment he placed a microphone in a tank filled with herring.

Late one night, while he was working in his lab, Wilson heard a strange high-pitched noise come over a pair of loudspeakers attached to the mic. At first, he thought it was a practical joke, but then, he discovered that when he heard the sound he could also see a stream of bubbles coming from an opening on the fishes’ body near its anus. Wilson and his colleagues called the sounds: fast repetitive ticks, or FRTs.

Herrings emit these FRTs at night, and they emit them at a more frequent rate as the concentration of herring climbs. Wilson says the sound frequency of the FRT’s is within a range that herring can hear. So he thinks FRTs might be used for communication as the massive schools of fish swim at night through pitch-black waters. Researchers tested whether these sounds are in response to fear, but herring didn’t change the number of FRTs when exposed to shark scent in the water.

And that’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Cynthia Graber.


GELLERMAN: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Duke Ellington “The Mooche” DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS WORLD FAMOUS ORCHESTRA (VOL. 2) (Hindsight – 1992)]

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Who Let the Cats Out?

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, and coming up: Leo and Moopheus plot an escape from the virtual stockyard called “The Meatrix.” But first – America's most popular pet. Nope, not Fido. It’s Fluffy. Americans own some 70 million cats. But as the number of pets in homes has grown, in some places so has the population of cats without homes. Outdoor cats can be a nuisance to people but they can also carry disease and destroy wildlife. Scientists, health officials, and cat lovers are looking for humane and effective ways to decrease the numbers of homeless cats. But as Bruce Schimmel reports from Milton, Delaware, the felines, at least for now, appear to have the upper claw.


SCHIMMEL: On this small, tree-lined street in rural Delaware sits an old Victorian house which Joannie and her husband Jamie bought for their retirement. But soon after the couple moved in, they discovered their dream home was already partly occupied: by a colony of cats.

JOANNIE: Mother cats would come in under the front porch, and would come all the way in under the front hall, and again have another litter of kittens.

SCHIMMEL: Abandoned domestic cats from the neighborhood were breeding a generation of feral kitten, unsocialized cats that shun human contact. They were living underneath the floorboards.

JOANNIE: We noticed a very strong scent in the sunroom. And we put in new flooring, thinking maybe that would solve the problem. But it didn't ‘cause the cats could go under any layer of flooring and still make quite a smell.

SCHIMMEL: The couple tried sealing the house and surrounded their foundation with mothballs. Five years and many boxes of mothballs later, the colony of cats was gone and the smell has been replaced by another odor.

JOANNIE: We are living with the suggestion or hint of eau de mothballs almost all the time.

SCHIMMEL: Estimates of the number of stray and feral cats in the U.S. range widely, from 10 million to as many as 70 million. Scientists and advocates say the rise – or decline – of the homeless cat population varies with location, time of year, and the effectiveness of cat population control. But perhaps one thing most will agree on is that the large number of strays and ferals is a problem to be reckoned with.


OAKES: Hungry? Come on. Here.

SCHIMMEL: In her modest bungalow surrounded by cornfields, Stella Oakes houses about 25 cats. All of the cats Oakes cares for are neutered. Last year, she was taking care of many more.

Feral cats at a study feed site.
(Photo: © Dr. Felicia D. Nutter)

OAKES: I had 260 cats, maybe more. And, ah, I just can't do it anymore, you know.

SCHIMMEL: Her own health failing, Oakes asked fellow cat-rescuers to relieve her of most of her animals. For years, Stella Oakes enjoyed her reputation as a Cat Lady, taking on animals nobody else wanted. But then, the dumping began.

OAKES: A woman got out of that car and had a carrier. And I seen her pick it up and shake it. She dumped out five baby kittens in a waterhole over there. It had rained the night before.

SCHIMMEL: Oakes believes that people dumped cats on her because they imagined it would be better than another alternative – taking them to the local animal shelter.

OAKES: I would rather see an animal put to sleep at the SPCA than dumped on a road to starve to death, or get run over.

SCHIMMEL: A few miles away, at the local SPCA, the number of cats coming through the door has been increasing steadily for the past several years.


LINKERHOF: Here's our reception area, this is where we do the intake.

SCHIMMEL: Lieutenant Gerry Linkerhof runs this state-funded animal shelter. The shelter lacks the funding to address the many complaints about feral and stray cats. Instead, says Linkerhof, several neighboring township hire private cat-catchers to bring in the felines.

LINKERHOF: As you can see, there's a gentleman bringing in a cat right now, in a trap.


SCHIMMEL: Cats living outdoors can carry disease, says Linkerhof, so the trapped ferals are segregated from domestic cats in the shelter. Feral cats are generally not sufficiently socialized to be suitable for adoption. The cats on public display here come almost entirely from homes.

LINKERHOF: As you can see, there's this nice little kitten in this cage here [MEOW] Very adoptable.

SCHIMMEL: But, even former housepets, if they're older, will not find new homes, says Linkerhof, pointing at an adult animal.

LINKERHOF: His chances, I'd say, are probably about ten percent chance – one in ten in making it out of here.

SCHIMMEL: Of the 2,900 domestic and feral cats brought to this shelter last year, some 90 percent were euthanized. According to the Humane Society of the U.S., there are no reliable national statistics for the number of cats euthanized yearly.

But while those numbers may be in the millions, some say they appear to be dropping. That's because many animal advocacy groups believe euthanasia is inhumane and may be unnecessary. Dr. Michael Stoskopf is a researcher at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He says euthanizing ferals to reduce populations does not always work.

STOSKOPF: Cat species is a very pragmatic species. They will do what they have to do to survive. If that means coming nowhere near humans, keeping out of sight, hunting at night, that's what they'll do.

SCHIMMEL: Feral colonies that are thinned out by euthanasia, says Stotskopf, tend to attract new recruits. So, Stoskopf looked at another form of population control growing in popularity among some cat advocates - trapping, neutering and then returning feral cats back to their colonies. His study, which presented recently at an American Veterinary Medical Association Forum, followed over 2,000 cats over a period of six years.

STOSKOPF: All of the colonies where we had done some form of neutering on both the males and the females decreased in size and some of them had gone completely extinct within three years.

SCHIMMEL: But Stoskopf says that some colonies may never go extinct. His study concludes that trap, neuter and return is a viable means of controlling feral cats – but only if it's managed intensively. Others add that domestic cats, if not neutered, should be kept indoors, so that they don't exacerbate the problem.


SCHIMMEL: At the end of a long and unmarked dirt road is a no-kill sanctuary run by Sue Gonzalez. The Good Shepherd Cat Sanctuary is hard to find, says Gonzalez, and for a very good reason.

GONZALEZ: I am not a cat collector, I never intended to be a cat collector. I hate that.


SCHIMMEL: This sanctuary houses about 125 cats, and it's currently filled. Gonzalez says she can find homes for about 60, about half of her cats, every month. She and her volunteers offer neutered and inoculated cats for adoption at a nearby pet store every day. The other half of these abandoned cats will remain here permanently to live their lives out in the sanctuary.

GONZALES: You're in the trenches, day in and day out, seven days a week, so you better beware, because you're going to need more than love to run a cat sanctuary.

SCHIMMEL: Whether by no-kill sanctuaries, euthanasia, or managed feral colonies, cats without owners, says North Carolina state's Dr. Michael Stoskopf, will ultimately be treated according to the place they occupy in people's heads and hearts.

STOSKOPF: Cats are amazing animals. They're adaptive, extremely plastic. And depending on your perspective, they're either small gods, or they're invasive, introduced species who shouldn't be there.

SCHIMMEL: And almost all agree that if un-neutered cats continue to be abandoned or are allowed to roam freely, the number of homeless cats and their feral descendents will continue to multiply.

For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Schimmel in Milton, Delaware.

Related links:
- Humane Society on Free-Roaming Cats
- Alley Cat Allies

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Florida’s Ferals

GELLERMAN: Florida also has a problem with feral felines. For the past half-century wild cats have been roaming an exclusive community near Miami. Homeowners brought them in to deal with rats, but soon the cat population got out of control. Today, a “trap, neuter and release” program has cut the number of cats to about 500. But critics say the cats are still ravaging wildlife, including an endangered species of rat that lives in a neighboring national wildlife refuge. Joining me is Craig Pittman. He's an environment reporter with the St. Petersburg Times. Hello, Craig.


GELLERMAN: These cats, they sound like they’re living the life of Riley, sort of aristo-cats.

PITTMAN: They have the nicest life of any cat you can imagine. They roam around about a two thousand acre property. They are fed regularly. The folks who live there spend about 75 thousand dollars a year on their care and feeding. And the program they have set up there is probably one of the more sophisticated trap, neuter, and release programs in the country.

GELLERMAN: Well, does the program work to reduce the numbers?

PITTMAN: The folks who run it say, yes it does. But they are unable to completely get rid of the feral cat colony there because they believe – at least part of the problem is the folks who work there, the workman who are building and things like that, bring cats there and drop them off because they know they will be very well taken care of.

GELLERMAN: So, of course, they roam all around, including to the nearby national wildlife refuge.

PITTMAN: That’s the belief of the federal biologists at the wildlife refuge. The endangered Key Largo wood rat population is entirely located within the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. And the population of the wood rats there has just plummeted, just since the trap, neuter, and release program began next door at the Ocean Reef Club. And so federal biologists are absolutely convinced that a big reason for that is these cats. Even though they’re being very well fed, nevertheless, because they are predators they are compelled to go over to the wildlife refuge and kill these rats.

GELLERMAN: So, explain to me why you’d want to save a rat.

PITTMAN: Well, they’re a crucial part of the ecosystem. The argument is they’re seed distributers. They are, of course, prey for other animals who are part of the natural system there, owls and so forth. And under our Endangered Species Act they are protected. To the point, in fact, where federal biologists made the decision last year to start a captive breeding program. So, yes indeed, the taxpayers are paying to breed rats right now.

GELLERMAN: How much are we paying?

PITTMAN: It’s about 12 thousand dollars a year right now. It may go up. They’re hoping to eventually have about 24 of them breeding, and then they would want to release them back into the wildlife refuge. But before they do that, they want to make sure that the cats won’t come in and wipe them out again. So, as a result, this past week they actually began putting out traps to try and trap the cats coming over from Ocean Reef.

GELLERMAN: But don’t scientists still have to prove that these wild cats are killing the rats?

PITTMAN: Well, that’s what they’re hoping that trapping program will do. The cats that have been taken in and cared for by the Ocean Reef program all have a particular marking on them that show that they are Ocean Reef Cats. And so if the traps that have been set our around the wildlife refuge catch those cats, they’ll be able to look at them and know, hey, these are Ocean Reef cats.

GELLERMAN: Well, what happens to the wild cats once they’re caught?

PITTMAN: Well, if they trap any of the Ocean Reef cats, then the instructions are to take them back to Ocean Reef where they’ll be cooped up, they won’t be allowed to get out. If they’re just regular cats they’ll be taken to an animal shelter down in Key Largo.

GELLERMAN: Are there any plans to get rid of the entire population of wild cats there?

PITTMAN: I think if you were to propose something like that the folks at Ocean Reef would take up arms to oppose you. They really love their cats there.

GELLERMAN: Craig Pittman is an environmental reporter with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Craig, thank you very much.

PITTMAN: You’re welcome.

[MUSIC: Beck “Hotwax” ODELAY (Geffen Records – 1996)]

Related link:
“Cat fight in the lap of luxury” by Craig Pittman

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The Meatrix

MORPHEUS: You wanted to know what the Matrix is, didn’t you?


MORPHEUS: Try and relax. This will feel a little bit weird.


GELLERMAN: Oh, it feels weird. Neo and Morpheus have come a long way since their first appearance in the original “Matrix” movie. And while the final showdown is now being played out in theatres across the country, a parody of “The Matrix” is circulating on the internet. It’s called: “The Meatrix.”


MALE: Here you go, Leo.

GELLERMAN: Jonah Sachs is a founder and creative director for Free Range Graphics, in Washington, D.C. His firm worked with GRACE, the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, to create this web spin-off of the action fantasy flick. Hi, Jonah.

SACHS: Hi, how are you doing?

GELLERMAN: So, “The Meatrix”?

SACHS: Well, we wanted to make something fun from a film that was catching on all over the world. We knew “The Matrix” was a big deal out there. So we piggybacked off of something, so to speak, that was already getting a lot of attention, and wanted to turn it to something that was getting no attention, which is the problem of factory farming.

GELLERMAN: Piggyback, literally. I mean, the flash movie on the internet features a pig at a trough, and it’s got this idyllic farmscape. Well, what happens next?

SACHS: Well, the idyllic farmscape, what we’re trying to say, is actually an illusion. The pig, Leo, is a young pig on a happy farm, and one day while he’s rooting around in his slop trough a mysterious character appears around from the back of the barn. Moopheus. And Moopheus is a cow in a trench coat and sunglasses who asks Leo if he’s heard of the Meatrix.

LEO: The Meatrix?

MOOPHEUS: Do you want to know what it is?

LEO: Okay.

MOOPHEUS: The Meatrix is all round you, Leo. It is the story we tell ourselves about where meat and animal products come from. This family farm is a fantasy, Leo. Take the blue pill and stay here in the fantasy. Take the red pill and I’ll show you the truth.

GELLERMAN: And he takes the red pill.

SACHS: He does take the red pill. And the next thing he knows he’s in a cage among thousands of other pigs, miserably staring at the floor, excrement everywhere, the place stinks. And he says, what is this? And Moopheus says, “welcome to the real world. This is a factory farm.”

LEO: How did this happen?

MOOPHEUS: I’ll show you. In the mid-20th century, greedy agricultural corporations began modifying sustainable family farming to maximize their profits at great cost to both humans and animals. Factory farming was born.

SACHS: And so it all kind of makes a bleak picture of where our food really comes from.

GELLERMAN: In your parody you use the bullet cam technique, you know, that’s the one that’s in “The Matrix” where they freeze the frame and they move around the action figure.

SACHS: Right. We didn’t know if we could actually do that with flash. It’s a 2-D drawing program, really. And Louis Fox, the guy who did all t he animation and collaborated with me on this, he said he could do it. I didn’t believe him, but he figured out a way to give the illusion of the pig frozen in mid-air, spinning around, as the chosen one, as Keanu does in the first Matrix.

LEO: Count me in! Yeahhhh!


GELLERMAN: Have you had a lot of hits on the internet?

SACHS: Actually, we’ve gotten our millionth visitor today. So this is way beyond any expectations that we’ve ever had for it. And because our success, I wouldn’t be surprised if we follow it up with a take-off on the second movie.

GELLERMAN: Jonah Sachs is a founder and a creative director with Free Range Graphics in Washington, D.C. Jonah, it was good talking with you.

SACHS: Thanks, Bruce.


GELLERMAN: To see “The Matrix,” go to your local theatre. To see “The Meatrix”, check out our web site, living on earth dot org. That’s living on earth dot org.


Related links:
- The Meatrix

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GELLERMAN: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. We leave you with a scene from real life meatrix.


GELLERMAN: From the soundscape “Sounding Dartmoor” this recording was made at a cattle market in Ashburton, England.


[The Digital Crowd/ Aune Head Arts / TESE “Store Cattle Market, Ashburton, December 2000” SOUNDING DARTMOOR (The Arts Council Of England – 2002)

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at living on earth dot org. Our staff includes: Carly Ferguson, Nathan Marcy, Susan Shepherd, James Curwood and Tom Simon. Al Avery runs our website. Our interns are Rebecca Griffin and Kathy Lutz.

We had help this week from Montana State University in Bozeman. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.


GELLERMAN: Steve Curwood is on assignment. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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