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

August 13, 2004

Air Date: August 13, 2004



Gorilla Therapy

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PART 1: As a child, Dawn Prince-Hughes was singled out on the playground as the oddball. She had few friends, and teachers grew frustrated by her seemingly lazy and inattentive behavior. She found it difficult to interact with her peers, and was easily distracted by bright lights and loud sounds. It wasn’t until her 30’s that she was diagnosed with a form of autism – a neurological disorder that affects nearly 1.5 million people in the US today. Dawn Prince-Hughes talks about her new book, “Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism,” and how an interaction at the local zoo helped her relate to the world around her.
PART 2: The conversation continues with Dawn Prince-Hughes, as she recounts her days as a volunteer at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. During her time there, she finds she can set aside her autistic “filters” when it comes to caring for the zoo’s gorillas. In turn, dealing with the gorillas helps her to establish meaningful and lasting relationships for the first time with the people around her. (26:15)

Gap in Nature / Tim Flannery

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As part of our occasional series “A Gap in Nature,” author Tim Flannery chronicles the rise and fall of a marsupial hunter called the thylacine. (04:00)

Emerging Science Note/Planting the Seed / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on research that may eventually lead to customized tree stands. (01:20)

The Ritual Uses of Mercury / Cynthia Graber

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Mercury has been used for thousands of years in medicine. The metal has even been ascribed magical properties. Today, though, it's known for its toxicity. But the use of mercury in ritual has persisted in some communities here in the US. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports. (14:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Dawn Prince-Hughes, Tim FlanneryREPORERS: Cynthia GraberNOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. For all her life Dawn Prince Hughes had been unable to connect with people. She dropped out of school, became homeless and lonely. Only later did she learn that autism was at the root of her troubles.

There is no cure for autism. But Dawn Prince-Hughes found a way to make lasting emotional bonds. It happened one day at the Seattle Zoo when a gorilla reached out and changed her life.

PRINCE-HUGHES: I never really understood what it was like to be really touched by another living thing. And it happened in that instant. We stood and looked at each other for a while and continued to let our fingers touch, and it just felt like five million years of evolution had disappeared and each of us could walk both ways and meet in the middle.

CURWOOD: Songs of the Gorilla Nation - this week 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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Gorilla Therapy


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood with this encore edition.

Think autism, and Raymond may come to mind. Raymond was the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning movie “Rain Man.” Raymond was an extremely introverted math whiz with a photographic memory. But if just one of his daily rituals changed in any way, he’d fly off the handle.


RAYMOND: Dah-dah, dah-dah.

CHARLIE: I had you in there Ray! You are in there!

RAYMOND: Dah dah…

CHARLIE: Defendants, plaintiffs, you had it all! They are in there making legal history, Ray, legal history!

RAYMOND: (MOANING) Ohhh…Oh boy, oh boy.

WOMAN: What is going on out here?

CHARLIE: I’m sorry ma’am, I lied to you. I’m very sorry about that. That man right there is my brother. If he doesn’t get to watch “People’s Court” in about 30 seconds he’s going to throw a fit right here on your porch. Now you can help me, or you can stand there and watch it happen.

CURWOOD: The symptoms for autism are now understood to be much more varied and nuanced than this movie portrays. Close to one and a half million people in the United States have some form of this neurological disorder, and many of them go undiagnosed. Author Dawn Prince Hughes remembers that as a child, her behavior was a mystery to those around her. She describes her condition this way:

Quote, “My parents were often frustrated with me because I would “walk through” or “look through” people as if they weren’t there. This phenomenon had more to do with my unawareness of where my body began and ended than with awareness of other people’s boundaries. It was as if I understood the edges of other people – disjointed as they sometimes were – but I myself had no such edges.”

CURWOOD: Dawn Prince-Hughes has written a book about her life with autism, and how a visit to her local zoo helped her define those edges. Her book is called: “Songs of a Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism.” She joins me now from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago.

Now Dawn, in your book, you say that from the time that you were young, you felt different. What do you mean by that? What made you feel different?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I was aware that I had sensitivities that other people weren’t displaying. And I think it’s important to remember that at base, autism is a sensory processing challenge. And, of course, we know now that it follows along a spectrum. Most people think of “Rain Man” or classic autism counter Syndrome. And it’s only been since 1996 that one could get a diagnosis of high-functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. But what they have in common is this lack of filters that most people are just born with. So it makes it very difficult on a sensory level to cope. And then, of course, because of that, you see secondary problems like inabilities to communicate and so forth.

CURWOOD: So, tell me about a sensory problem that you would have that people without this might not have to face.

PRINCE-HUGHES: When I was a kid -- I don’t struggle with this quite as much anymore -- but when I was a kid, certainly just normal levels of light were very painful. Normal levels of sound could be very painful. And my clothing could even be uncomfortable, normal cotton clothing. So again, you see this kind of sensory over-stimulation just in normal settings.

CURWOOD: So your clothes were uncomfortable so, of course, you’re a kid you’d take them off. And then what happens?

PRINCE-HUGHES: (laughs) Well, that’s when the real magic happened because I would run around naked outside and build forts and almost pretend I was a primate even back then before I knew what it was like to be a primate, so I think it was in my blood.

CURWOOD: So that’s the fun side, but I can imagine wanting to take off your clothes because they were uncomfortable and not being able to handle what other people see as normal levels of light or normal levels of sound could also make things kind of difficult.

PRINCE-HUGHES: It was. Physically it was very, very challenging and uncomfortable constantly. And you know, there’s a strong genetic component in autism spectrum phenomena, and my whole family was really crazy (laughs) so in a way I think that was lucky because we all had these sensitivities and sort of made room for each other.

Where I really got into sensory difficulties though was when I started public school. And, certainly, I don’t think that’s unique to autistic people. I think it can be hard on everybody. But for me it was really excruciating, just the smell of the other kids, having to touch chalk, having to sit still in one position and look forward, having to try to listen to the teacher when the ambient noise was deafening to me. All those things were very difficult to deal with.

CURWOOD: Mmmm. Now, what was it like with your peers? And how did the other kids treat you?

PRINCE-HUGHES: When I was younger, it was just verbal teasing. You know, people would call me “weirdo”, or run away from me like they were going to catch something. And then, later, when I was a teenager it became very physical, and I got beat up all the time and eventually quit school because of that. I don’t think anyone ever meant me any harm. They just certainly weren’t familiar with my problem. Of course, no one was, it wasn’t even in the diagnostic manual yet.

CURWOOD: You know, in a lot of schools, there’s often a kid that has just what you’re describing, they get labeled as “the weirdo.” And it’s not that they aren’t smart, but they don’t do very well academically, they don’t seem to have any buddies. What are the odds that this kid might have this high-functioning autism?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I think the odds are very great. You know, people are starting to be diagnosed in record numbers. And there’s some skepticism that perhaps Asperger’s is being over-diagnosed, just, perhaps, as ADHD was. But then you have to remember that once we have the tools, then it’s very important to identify these kids. And I read once recently that the number could be as high as one in one hundred. That’s a lot of kids that are suffering out there.

CURWOOD: So there you are, in elementary school, you’re living someplace in Montana, and you come home from school -- which is a very difficult place -- but you get home and you get to be yourself and do things that you like. What were your favorite things to do when you were a kid?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I had several, but the one that stands out now, in hindsight, looking at my career path, is that I used to go down to the stream close to our house and build these Paleolithic settlements. So I would build huts of you know, sticks and grass, and I would try to make pottery out of the clay, and I would make necklaces, and try to find plants that I could eat. And so my little Paleolithic village became my refuge.

CURWOOD: Paleolithic. That’s a big word for a little girl.

PRINCE-HUGHES: (laughs) Yeah, well you know, it’s funny, nobody’s brought this up but since I was very, very young, I was I guess what you would call a language savant, and I loved the sound of language. And I remember distinctly really liking the sound of the word “paleolithic.”

CURWOOD: So you were fine when it came to, say, English or social studies, but do math and what would happen?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Well, disaster would happen (laughs). I still don’t balance my checkbook, it’s a nightmare. I just kind of intuitively guess how much money is in my bank account. So, yeah, writing and reading were always natural to me. I talked at a very early age, was reading things like D.H. Lawrence when I was nine, and just really enjoying it, really understanding it. Got into the philosophers like Kant when I was in about seventh grade…

CURWOOD: Kant in seventh grade?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I did. I did, and…

CURWOOD: Oh, my.

PRINCE-HUGHES: (laughs) But math, you know, I was just a complete idiot, it’s embarrassing. I still, I just don’t even go there.

CURWOOD: So what other seventh graders, or even adults, could you find to discuss Kant with?

PRINCE-HUGHES: None. It was very lonely. I mean, even my parents, who certainly were, you know philosophically inclined, I mean I think they were interested in ideas, but we were very poor and they didn’t have time really to do a lot of studying or contemplating. So I really didn’t have anybody to speak of.

CURWOOD: In getting ready to talk with you, Dawn, I noticed that you have a PhD, but also that you were a high school dropout.


CURWOOD: So tell me, what happened? Why did you drop out of school?

PRINCE-HUGHES: It was a combination of things. I just mentioned that I had been reading Kant in seventh grade, and I became convinced that I needed to tell the truth in all situations regardless of consequence. And I had known for some time that I was gay, and so in this tiny little town in Montana in the summer of my eighth grade year, I applied my Kantian philosophy full-force and came out to the whole town. And so, where I had been really strange and you know, weird, and people called me names and pushed me around before -- then I really became a target. And my parents were concerned that I would be really harmed. And we talked about it and that’s when I decided to leave home.

CURWOOD: So tell me what happens next. You’re how old?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Sixteen. I ended up homeless for about five years off and on, and I self-medicated with a lot of drugs and alcohol, and just wandered around. Wherever I could find people to take me in, or whoever was traveling to the next city, I would go. Eventually I found myself in Seattle, still homeless. I used to go out to the dance clubs to get warm and kind of be around people knowing I wouldn’t have to talk to them. And I had an acquaintance come to me one day and say, you know, you’re a pretty good dancer, you should think about being an erotic dancer. And I said, well, you know, I can’t do that, that’s really kind of beneath me. And she pointed out that I was homeless (laughs).

CURWOOD: You were broke?


CURWOOD: So, you’re in these -- you don’t have much in the way of friends, but you’re going to these clubs to be with people, but not be with people. Explain that to me a little bit, would you?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I was mostly interested in just being somewhere other than the street, because you know, being on the street is difficult. And so I knew people, I recognized people, and that gave me some distant sense of community. I mean, there’s kind of a myth that autistic people don’t want any community, they don’t have that need for friendship. And that’s not necessarily true. I mean, in some cases it is, but oftentimes it’s just a matter of people not finding the right people to have things in common with. So I would go out and go to these clubs and, you know, feel a certain sense of belonging, I guess.

CURWOOD: So, you would go to these clubs just to dance by yourself, and like, off privately, or for people to watch you?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I wasn’t really concerned whether people were watching me or not. And that was certainly true of my professional dancing, as well. I danced for myself. I liked listening to the steady beat was a lot like, you know, you see autistic people rocking. I mean, that was basically the sensory equivalent.

But I would add that both the dance club and the place where I worked formerly were very industrial atmospheres, very alienating. I had grown up in nature and always had that connection with nature and animals. And so it was with one of my first paychecks from dancing that I decided to go out to the zoo, and, of course, that was the moment that changed my life when I met the gorillas there.

CURWOOD: My guest is Dawn Prince Hughes, author of: “Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism.” And in just a minute we’ll learn exactly how her encounters with a band of gorillas at the local zoo changed her life. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

If you’re just tuning in, my guest is Dawn Prince-Hughes who has written a book called: “Songs of a Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism.” And as we’ve heard so far, autism can be both a gift and a curse.

Dawn, before the break, you were telling us about the time after you left your home and your family, and, essentially, took to the streets. And we were just about to get to the point when you experienced something that you say, quote “changed your life forever.” Can you take us there now to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle? That’s where you volunteered as a zookeeper. Please describe that first day.

PRINCE-HUGHES: Showing up at the gate was difficult, because I knew I was going to have to deal with the ticket taker, and I really didn’t like to interact with people. So that was a challenge, but I was determined. So I went ahead and paid my money and went in, and immediately felt somewhat more relaxed. I looked at the trees and listened to the birds, and wandered around looking at the usual animals. You know, I remember visiting the giraffes and the hippos and things. But then I turned the corner and saw the gorilla family sitting there, and had this instant epiphany that these were a sort of people. I guess intuitively I understood they were people that could understand me and that I could understand in turn.

CURWOOD: So then, what did you do?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I sat down and I watched them, and I felt my body relax for probably the first time in my whole life, you know, relaxed to that degree. I felt like I was in good company, real company, immediate company. The gorilla culture is very slow moving and very predictable, and they don’t make a lot of eye contact which, again, reduces that extra level of intensity in communication. And so I just felt as though I had come home.

CURWOOD: Eventually, you got a job at the zoo and in your book you movingly describe perhaps another life-changing moment for you, when your hand is gently touched by a huge silverback named Congo as you’re putting strawberries, uh, in front of his cage. Can you tell me that story and what you think happened in that interaction?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Sure. Congo, my dearest friend ever, who is unfortunately no longer with us, was the gorilla who I think that changed my life the most. I had gotten several different positions at the zoo -- some volunteer, they were related to my schooling, going back to university -- and some were paid. But I was working with Congo in the back, in the office where the gorillas’ night rooms adjoin the office, and lining strawberries up. And, in a very typically autistic fashion, making sure they lined up between the bars absolutely perfectly (laughs). And, of course, his only interest was eating strawberries, right? So he didn’t care what position they were in, so he was eating them much faster than I put them down.

And so while I was absorbed in my task, he caught up to my hand. And as I put a strawberry down, he put his hand over my hand. And I remember just stopping dead still, and looking up into his eyes -- which was significant, because he was face to face with me, you know, inches away, and I was looking into his eyes. And I didn’t feel compelled to turn away. I felt his touch, I really felt his touch. And when people had touched me before, I had constructed so many filters, artificial filters, that I never really understood what it was like to be really touched by another living thing. And it happened in that instant. We stood and looked at each other for a while, and continued to let our fingers touch, and it just felt like five million years of evolution had disappeared, and each of us could walk both ways and meet in the middle.

CURWOOD: You say you had filtered touch in earlier…what do you mean by that?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Almost like bracing for it. If your clothing is painful, then you can imagine what other kinds of pressure would feel like. And I hasten to say though that other autistic people feel that they really enjoy firm touch. They really like to be touched a lot, because, and I think the reason is that, once again, it gives them a sense of barrier, a sense of containment that they don’t usually feel. But that wasn’t my experience. I mean, it wasn’t always painful, but it was rarely spontaneous, and rarely just unequivocally enjoyable.

CURWOOD: Must have made it hard for you to be in relationships with people.

PRINCE-HUGHES: Yes, it was very hard. I sort of approached it from a robotic point of view, I guess. I did date people, uh, I think mostly for the intellectual challenge of figuring out how to do it (laughs). But I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be feeling really until I met my current partner.

CURWOOD: Now, sometimes, as I understand it, people with Asperger’s Syndrome are also described as having a non-verbal learning disability. That is, they don’t read non-verbal cues very well. I’m wondering if that’s something that you experienced at all.

Dawn Prince-Hughes with a gorilla family (Photo: Robynne Sapp)

PRINCE-HUGHES: Yes it is, and I think we have to back up a step and ask what the origin of that problem actually is. I believe that it again stems from a sensory processing challenge. Because if all of your energy is going into putting order, imposing order on the chaos, the sensory chaos around you, you’re not going to be able to pay attention.

That still happens to me now. I was doing a radio interview I guess last month now, and the guy was wonderful, we were having a great conversation, but they had sound batting along the walls, it was bright blue and it had stripes. And because of the vibrancy of the color, and the way that the stripes gave the optical illusion of motion, I could not track what he was saying, I could not track his facial expressions, I got completely lost. And thank God we were taping and not live (laughs). But yeah, those challenges still occur for me, and certainly they are part of Asperger’s Syndrome.

CURWOOD: I’m wondering if you could talk about the kind of symptoms that you have as a person with Asperger’s, that we haven’t covered so far, and how that has affected your relationships -- particularly now that you have a partner and a child.

PRINCE-HUGHES: I think the one thing that really springs to mind, because it’s so problematic for so many people on the autism spectrum, is the phenomenon of meltdown. Rage attacks. That has had a disastrous effect on my relationships. What happens is that the environment becomes so attacking, so, on a sensory level, so overwhelming, that you basically just tumble down into your deepest animal urges and start to lash out. Once it’s started, it has to run its course and it can be very scary. I’ve never hurt anyone. I’ve thrown things and yelled and cowered in a corner. But I know other autistic people have hurt people, so that comes to mind.

And also, again I hear from parents a lot, what can we do to help our child with Asperger’s or autism spectrum communicate, and I just reassert that sensory problems have to be dealt with before you see progress in any other areas.

CURWOOD: Hmm. And how do you deal with sensory problems?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Just by lessening sensory stimulation. Um, a dark room. I often have to recuperate from giving public talks, for instance. So I’ll go in my room and turn on a red light because the red light screens out the rest of the colors of light on the spectrum. And I’ll turn the heat up because I find heat comforting. I will slip on some silk or maybe get into a sleeping bag that’s made of nylon. So, on all the levels, sensory levels, I just turn everything down. So I urge parents and autistic people themselves to take control in that way, it’s very helpful.

CURWOOD: Now, you were diagnosed with Asperger’s at, what, age 36? So I’m just wondering why did it take so long for you to get this diagnosis, and how did the diagnosis happen?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Well, two reasons it took so long. One, as I mentioned, the diagnosis itself was not available until 1996 when it was finally included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Number Four, which is what mental healthcare providers use to make diagnoses. So that was reason number one. Reason number two, you do find on the spectrum that people often will implement their intelligence to cope and learn strategies to blend in a little better.

It’s interesting, the way I got my diagnosis. I mentioned rage attacks and, well, I had them a lot. And my partner said, look, figure out what’s going on or I’m leaving. And I knew I couldn’t let that happen because we had a son by then, and my family was the most important thing in the world to me.

So I did a lot of research and determined that I had Asperger’s Syndrome, called my mother and father and my sister and everyone who ever knew me, and interviewed them for hours getting a history of my symptoms. And then I cross-referenced them on the computer with the diagnostic criteria at every age. So I had about an inch-thick stack of papers (laughs) that was my case file. And then I called the psychiatrist, and said…

CURWOOD: Okay (laughs).

PRINCE-HUGHES: (laughs)…and said hi, I need a diagnosis of Asperger’s, I’ve made it very easy for you, when can I see you? And she laughed about that and said she could probably diagnosis me on the phone (laughs).

CURWOOD: I understand that in some cases people with Asperger’s function a lot better if they have kind of a broker, or intermediary in their life. Somebody close to them who can interpret what is going on. How accurate is that?

PRINCE-HUGHES: I think that’s probably pretty accurate. Sometimes it ends up being our partners, who, bless their souls, probably can’t stand to be bored (laughs) so that’s how they end up with us. I’d like to think we offer something in return. But I joke about my partner being sort of Anne Sullivan to my Helen Keller because I get lost still. We’ll go to parties and people will be laughing about something, or say something to me, and I don’t know if it’s to be taken literally or not. So we’ll have debriefing sessions where my partner will have to interpret for me, really. So, yeah, I bet that’s common.

CURWOOD: So, dealing with gorillas, you can’t use verbalizations to communicate with them. I mean, other than some very basic ones, I suppose, a bark or grunt or something. It’s got to mostly be non-verbal.

PRINCE-HUGHES: That’s exactly right. At least so far as the gorillas are not involved in language studies. I mean, certainly, we know that there are gorillas that understand English, they understand sign language. And other apes like chimps and bonobos, orangutans that are involved in language study programs, have an amazing grasp of human language. But yes, it was, for me, with the gorillas at the zoo who were not trained in human language, it was primarily non-verbal communication.

CURWOOD: So I’m wondering if in this process of communicating with them, that there was something special that you learned?

PRINCE-HUGHES: Well, they taught me how to be a human being. They taught me how to be joyful, they taught me how to understand sadness, they taught me how to understand humor among them and among human people. And they also taught me a sense of responsibility. And that has been so important because, even thought it was very sad, I remember sitting there one day with them thinking, okay, they’ve given me my personhood, they’ve given me my humanity as a gift, and now I have to go out. I have to leave them, go out in the world and do something good with my life.

CURWOOD: Dawn Prince-Hughes is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Western Washington University, and she’s author of “Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism.” Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

PRINCE-HUGHES: Sure, nice talking to you.

Related link:
“Songs of the Gorilla Nation” by Dawn Prince-Hughes, Ph.D.

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Gap in Nature

CURWOOD: These days, we don’t think of marsupials, such as kangaroos and koala bears, as predators. But hunters did once exist among the marsupials, and the largest of these animals to have survived into modern times was the thylacine. As part of our continuing series, “A Gap in Nature,” author Tim Flannery chronicles the rise and fall of this rather strange creature from down under.

[MUSIC: Junior Communist Club “Ultrabollywood” Freedom of Speed Sugar Free (1999)]

(Illustration by Peter Schouten)

FLANNERY: About the size and shape of a German shepherd, with a tiger-striped back and hindquarters, the thylacine was a striking animal. By the time Europeans encountered it in the nineteenth century, its range was limited to the Australian island of Tasmania-- hence its nickname, the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf. Thylacines often built their dens among rocks, and the young stayed with their mothers until they were almost fully grown. They hunted alone, in pairs, and in family groups, pursuing wallabies and other animals by scent. They either ambushed their prey or ran them into exhaustion.

In either case, the thylacine dispatched its victim by crushing its skull in jaws that could open remarkably wide. As for those who hunted the thylacine, Aborigines occasionally pursued them, but seem to have held them in respect. They built a curious shelter over the thylacines’ bones in the belief that if they were rained upon, bad weather was certain to follow. But it was European settlers who relentlessly persecuted the thylacine into extinction, since sheep farmers saw them as a threat. So a bounty was paid on thylacine scalps. As live animals became increasingly rare, dead ones commanded ever higher prices.

In a move that was far too little, too late, the species was finally protected by the Australian government in 1936, the year that the last known living individual died. That animal was a lone female thylacine kept in the Tasmanian Zoo. When personnel problems developed there, the zoo animals were neglected. As one witness put it, the last thylacine was left exposed by staying out in an open, wire-topped cage with no access to a sheltered den. In September that year, daytime temperatures soared above 100 degrees while at night they plummeted to below freezing. On September seventh, the stress became too much for the last thylacine and, unattended by her keepers, she closed her eyes on the world for the last time.

However, it’s possible that a few wild individuals roamed the island for a decade or two after this, for there were a few credible sightings into at least the 1940s. One old hunter said that he found a female and three cubs in an area that was later flooded to create a hydroelectric power plant. When pressed on whether his dogs had killed the thylacines, the hunter dodged the issue but it’s thought they probably did. Now all hope is lost for, although many expensive searches have been made, no thylacine sightings have been authenticated for many years. Some hope to recreate the thylacine from DNA taken from museum specimens. But given our knowledge of molecular biology, this is just a pipe dream.

CURWOOD: Tim Flannery is author of “A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals.” To see a picture of the last thylacine and to hear other segments in our series go to our website, livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org…Just ahead, a new way to grow trees. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations and the Noyes Foundation dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12. Ford, presenting the Escape hybrid whose full hybrid technology allows it to run on gas or electric power. Full Ford technology details at vehicles at fordvehicles.com. The Annenberg fund for excellence in communications and education and the Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This NPR, National Public Radio.


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Emerging Science Note/Planting the Seed

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Coming up…the use of mercury in cultural rituals. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Picture row upon row of hardwood trees planted for the sole purpose of becoming furniture. Or trees perfect for paper production. These genetically-engineered “trees of the future” may not be that far off. Scientists have now figured out a way to quickly identify the genes that control specific traits in poplar trees.

To get the perfect flower color or the meatiest apple, growers mate parent plants that hold desirable traits. But there’s no guarantee the pairing will pay off. And because of the long life-span of trees, it could take decades to complete a test cycle.

But with the new approach scientists can see results in about a year. Researchers randomly inserted foreign pieces of DNA into the poplar genome. This infiltrator exactly mimics the expression pattern of a poplar gene which, in turn, provides clues about that gene’s function.

For example, one scientist hopes to grow trees the way we grow houseplants – by taking a cutting, putting it in water, and having it take root. He’s identified 35 out of the poplar’s 36,000 genes that likely play a role in root formation. Next, he’ll try to transfer a houseplant’s genes into the poplar genome to see if he can get an entire poplar tree to take root in water.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Jennifer Chu.


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The Ritual Uses of Mercury

CURWOOD: Mercury has played a role in human culture for thousands of years. It’s the only metal that’s a liquid at room temperature. People have long attributed medical, or even magical, powers to it. But its ability to harm the human brain has been known for more than a hundred years. Probably the most famous example is the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland – “mad” because he worked with mercury.

Scientists and advocates alike have sought to remove mercury from the food we eat and the air we breathe. So health workers in the Boston area were surprised when they found out that the idea of a beneficial mercury has persisted in some communities. Cynthia Graber reports.


GRABER: Seniors fill a community room in downtown Lawrence, Massachusetts, a former mill town about an hour northwest of Boston that’s now 80 percent Latino, mostly Dominican. Doris Anziani heads up a local environmental health group called Casa de Salud that offer regular “charlas,” or chats, such as the one here today. At one charla last spring, Anziani spoke about the risk of mercury from incinerators and from certain kinds of fish. She mentioned that there’s mercury in thermometers. After she spoke, another Casa leader approached her.

ANZIANI: When she thought about that she said, “ooh, I’ve seen something else that looks like the liquid that’s inside the thermometer.” So we were asking her, “what is it?” “It’s in a capsule, and it’s sold at the botanicas. It’s called azogue.”

GRABER: Botanicas are stores that sell all sorts of Afro-Caribbean products: rosaries, saints, candles and perfumed water, and herbs. Anziani discovered azogues is another name for mercury.

Some Afro-Carribean stores or botanicas sell mercury in a variety of forms. (Photo: Courtesy of JSI)

ANZIANI: Then we came back to the Casa leaders and they were familiar with the mercury. People use it for these purposes. And we’re like, “okay, we need to do more research here. I think we’re not just being contaminated by the incinerator. I think we’re contaminating ourselves by using these products in our homes.”

GRABER: Casa de Salud was founded by JSI, a group that does health research and training around the world. After their initial investigation, Anziani and her supervisor at JSI created a questionnaire to find out just how many people were using mercury in their homes. Community members, including teenagers, went around Lawrence, talking to people at home, in botanicas, in beauty salons and barbershops.

ANZIANI: We discovered that out of 920 people, 40 percent had used it or knew someone that used it. So, it was very alarming.

GRABER: Rosa Diaz, not her real name, reluctantly agrees to talk about her experiences with mercury. Diaz looks away and fidgets a little as she explains that she used to use mercury back in the Dominican Republic.


VOICEOVER: I do remember once, I put it on, like for one month, almost every day, in perfumed water. All over my body, yeah.

GRABER: Diaz used it in other ways, as well.


VOICEOVER: And in the house, many people sprinkle it in the house. I used it in the house, too.

GRABER: Diaz doesn’t want anyone to know she formerly used mercury. She stopped using it entirely when she moved to the U.S. nine years ago. She says it just wasn’t a part of her new life. Diaz only learned a couple of months ago about the damage mercury can cause.


VOICEOVER: Oh, I wanted to die, because...that stuff – sometimes I tell people, be careful, because it really had a strong effect on me. Because I really forget everything. I can be studying, and I learn something today, and tomorrow I don’t know it. That could be from...when I was using it back then.

GRABER: Scientists agree – the loss of memory she describes could well be due to the mercury vapors she inhaled. Many people have tales of playing with it as a child. The little balls of mercury roll around and vaporize. And it’s just this attribute that causes problems.

Touching mercury isn’t really a concern because it’s not easily absorbed through the skin. But these vapors pass into blood and make their way to the brain. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include memory loss, irritability, anxiousness, tremors. Diaz used mercury for luck. But then she goes to the medicine cabinet to get out some face cream her sister brought her back from the Dominican Republic.

DIAZ IN SPANISH: Mercurio oxido.


DIAZ IN SPANISH: Tiene mercurio eso.


GRABER: She discovered just this morning that it contains mercury oxide, a form of mercury. And the use of the metal extends beyond ritual and beyond cosmetics.


GRABER: Most agree that the spirited music and dance merengue came to life in the Dominican Republic. Both are intimately woven into the fabric and culture of the island. Sunilda Peguero, another Domican woman who lives in Lawrence, explains how the use of mercury is tied to the rhythm of the island.


VOICEOVER: I personally saw people there use that stuff. It’s a country where, you know, where people dance merengue, and people say it gives you more agility to dance -- especially in your hips, your whole behind. And that’s what it was for, that’s what we thought, that you could use it. Just the same way that mercury doesn’t lie calm – in that same way people, when they use it get in the groove and use it, they can really move. I didn’t have any knowledge that it can harm your body. I just didn’t know.

GRABER: Peguero was willing to talk about what she saw other people do. And Diaz was willing to talk about her personal experiences – under an assumed name. But finding people willing to talk about using mercury here in the U.S., to outsiders, is difficult. In part, it’s because the use of mercury is also tied to Caribbean religions such as Santeria. And the religions themselves have been secret for hundreds of years.


GRABER: Steve Quintana sways slightly as he leads the prayers in his Boston home, which is also a community house of worship. This evening, the room is overflowing with people of all ages, from small children in their mothers’ arms to grandparents.

Quintana is a Santero, or a Santeria priest. The chants in the room hearken back beyond Quintana’s native Cuba to Santeria’s roots in Africa. Santeria, along with other Caribbean and South American religions such as voodoo, was an adaptation to life under slavery. Quintana says slaveholders tried hard to change the traditions of their slaves.

QUINTANA: They went through a lot of trouble changing our language and adapting us to the ways of living, and put us into their own way of thinking. And giving us their own religion. And, eventually, we was hiding our religion under the table with the saints on top.

GRABER: Today, Santeria – and its sister religions – are alive and well in Caribbean communities in American cities. In addition to leading ritual worship, Quintana also acts as a healer. He says he works with nature’s powers, and with herbs. He considers mercury powerful. But he says he would never recommend its use because mercury is toxic.

QUINTANA: That’s the reason why I don’t sell that. And I would not sell that.

GRABER: Quintana says that people do come to him requesting mercury. But he insists that mercury use was never a part of traditional Santeria. Rosa Diaz had a different experience in the Dominican Republic where she grew up.


VOICEOVER: The majority of the Santeros tell you, “Use this for good luck.”

GRABER: Though the use of mercury hasn’t been widely known in the U.S., it turns out a small group of researchers have been aware of its connection to Caribbean and Latin American communities.

Linda Barnes is a medical historian associated with Boston University Medical School. She says slaves probably learned about mercury from their European slave owners and incorporated it into their own religions. Barnes explains that mercury was used in the U.S. and Latin America because of the strong reaction it produced in the body.

BARNES: The core system was known as humoral medicine. And humoral medicine assumed there were a number of subtle fluids that ran through the body that influenced both a person’s temperament and personality, on the one hand, and their balance of health on the other.

When that balance was out of kilter, physicians did things to try to rebalance it. Depending on the nature of the imbalance, you might let blood to reduce excessive heat, you might administer certain kinds of foods, certain kinds of herbs. And one of the things you might administer was mercury.

Casa de Salud health care worker, Doris Anziani, talks to a woman about the dangers of mercury. Photo: Courtesy of JSI)

GRABER: After Doris Anziani learned how mercury is used today in her community, she began creating an education campaign with JSI. They published a pamphlet in both Spanish and English that explains the dangers of mercury and suggests other herbs that might serve the same religious and cultural purposes.


GRABER: Anziani takes me to a botanica run by her former sister-in-law. There are bright turquoise walls and a heavy smell of scented candles. Marina Anziani stands behind the counter and points out some of the things crammed into the display and lining the walls behind her.


VOICEOVER: We have everything here. Candles, saints, books, perfume, soaps, powders. But nothing to ingest, nothing to take, nothing like that. Just stuff like candles, only things like that.

GRABER: She says she hasn’t sold mercury in years. Instead, her supplier suggested something else, a capsule filled with red powder. I ask her if using mercury is important for people who come into her store.


VOICEOVER: No, it’s not important. Because if you don’t use that, you can use something else. For me, that isn’t important, because there are other things you can substitute, like red precipitate. It’s like a fine powder.

GRABER: She tells me that red precipitate is just a powder. Two weeks later, lab results show it’s mercury oxide. Scientists say this isn’t as dangerous as liquid mercury but they wouldn’t want it around the house. Anziani’s work, and the handful of studies that have been done on the ritual use of mercury, raise questions for healthcare workers and scientists.

RILEY: As a scientist, I really would like to know the amount of mercury that’s used for a given preparation and the frequency of use.

GRABER: Donna Riley is in the engineering department at Smith College. It turns out the Environmental Protection Agency recently convened a task force on ritual use of mercury and Riley was the person who headed it up. They've even known that 85-90 percent of the botanicas in New York and New Jersey sell mercury.

But Riley says these availability studies aren’t enough. She says though it’s available, and though people know about it, she believes it’s only a small segment of the Caribbean population that actually uses it. So now, Riley wants more details.

RILEY: I’m very interested in how much people sprinkle, and how often they sprinkle, and whether or not that mercury is ever cleaned up -- or if it stays in the room for an indefinite amount of time.

GRABER: Riley says, though, that even if the mercury is cleaned up, remnants could stay in the home for years. Although it evaporates easily, it also re-condenses, and binds to clothing, to carpets, to pieces of metal. Once mercury has contaminated a living area, it’s tough – and extremely expensive – to get rid of. This frightens Doris Anziani.

ANZIANI: I mean, you move into a house and you don’t know if the person who was living there before was burning mercury. And here you are bringing your kids into this new apartment. It’s very scary.

GRABER: This is of particular importance in a city such as Lawrence. Almost 70 percent of the housing stock is rental. There’s a high turnover rate. And there is a chance that some apartments could have higher levels of mercury in the air.

Scientist Donna Riley says she’s conducted some studies of mercury levels in the air in hallways of predominantly Caribbean apartment buildings in New York. Though she hasn’t seen anything alarming, she still is concerned.

But health workers, scientists, and community members alike caution against panic. They don’t want a surge of discrimination against Caribbean-Americans, particularly from landlords. And they don’t want government regulations that could drive the use further underground. Again, Donna Riley.

RILEY: The EPA has been criticized by some – really, not community members but other people who would like to see more action on this particular issue because they’re concerned about the potential for contaminating housing stock and so on. People have criticized the EPA for not acting in a more top down way. But I really think that the solution, if it’s going to be an effective one, has to come from within the community.

GRABER: Anziani agrees.

ANZIANI: We need to continue to educate. We need to develop a big educational campaign and let people know that this is very, very, extremely dangerous. I mean, if you tell a parent that this is going to affect their children – I mean, if I care about my kids, I’m going to stop using it. Definitely.

GRABER: For Living on Earth, this is Cynthia Graber, in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Related links:
- EPA Task Force on Ritualistic Uses of Mercury Report
- EPA on Mercury

Back to top


CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth: there’s a lot of talk lately about hydrogen as the next big thing in energy. Some skeptics say it’s decades away and will never be too cheap to meter, but on a small island in the middle of the North Atlantic the idea is more than a lot of hype. In Iceland, hydrogen is already happening.

GRIMSSON: Can the world afford to have the hydrogen project far into the future? Isn’t it of great need, even a pressing need, for the total global environment to have the hydrogen project as a viable option here and now, as quickly as possible?

CURWOOD: It’s the promise of hydrogen on the next Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the stories at livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.


CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a reminder that joyful noise can reside in unlikely places. [INSECT SOUNDS] Using an underwater recording device called a hydrophone, David Dunn collected this collage of insects sounds from a small pond in Mora, New Mexico.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Ingrid Lobet, Susan Shepherd, and Jeff Young with help from Carl Lindemann and Kelley Cronin.

Our interns are Jennifer Cecil Moore, Diana Schoberg and Monica Wright. You can find us at Livingonearth.org.

Our technical director is Paul Wabrek Al Avery runs our website.

Alison Dean composed our themes. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood, 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 and more. Women of inspiration speak at the Stonyfield Strong Women programs taking place in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Details at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Wellborn Ecology Fund.

ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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