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

August 27, 2004

Air Date: August 27, 2004



Redneck Riviera

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PART 1: Every summer, Sam Covington would take his family on vacations to the Florida coast. It was the one time when he could leave behind the cares and responsibilities of his Alabama upbringing. Later in life, he decided to buy up a piece of that paradise, and wound up investing in River Ranch Acres – a two and a half acre plot of undeveloped land, which ultimately turned out to be a real estate scam. He never set foot on his land, and yet it was the one thing he left to his son, Dennis, when he died. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Dennis Covington about his new book, Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream, and about his quest to reclaim his father’s land.
PART 2: Dennis Covington’s story continues, as he explains the lengths he undertook to secure his inheritance. To stake his claim from a band of gun-toting members of the local Hunt Club, he set up camp on River Ranch Acres. Little did he suspect that it would take more than a revolver and born-and-bred Alabama gumption to change the ways of the Florida land. (23:45)

The Secret Life of Lead / Cynthia Graber

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Scientists are testing meconium, babies' first stools, to try to assess how much lead transfers from pregnant mothers to their fetuses. Cynthia Graber reports this latest installment of the Living on Earth series, "The Secret Life of Lead." (06:35)

Emerging Science Note/Changing Forests / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports that rising levels of carbon dioxide may be causing changes in the makeup of the Amazon. (01:20)

Pampered Pets / Susan Shepherd

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The relationship between pets and humans is changing. As more people see their pets as quasi-human, they’re spending more money on their animals, as well as searching for new ways to keep them happy. Living on Earth’s Susan Shepherd has our story. (15:10)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Dennis CovingtonREPORTERS: Cynthia Graber, Susan ShepherdNOTES: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. When Dennis Covington was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, summertime meant heading to Florida to a place the locals fondly called the “Redneck Riviera.” Dennis inherited a piece of Florida from his father, but when it came time to claim his birthright, Dennis found he had to wrestle the land away from a group of bellicose squatters.

COVINGTON: At night, I would dress in black and put lampblack under my eyes. And armed with my revolver and my shotgun, I would cut the fence and make my way into my little canvas house where I would stand guard all night, waiting for somebody to appear out of the palmetto leaves and beg to be shot.

CURWOOD: The battle for River Ranch Acres - this week on Living on Earth. Also, ritual use of the toxic metal mercury, and a preview of environmental politicking on Capitol Hill. Stick around.


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

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Redneck Riviera

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

This week, we explore the story of a father’s legacy to his son. Two and a half acres of undeveloped land in Florida’s interior where even owners with deeds to the land are kept at a distance by a band of gun-toting squatters. It’s a story of a stubborn and unyielding culture, of a son’s determination, and, ultimately, of who will inherit the land.

Dennis Covington is the son who inherits his father’s dream, and goes to reclaim this small patch of paradise. He has written a book about his quest called “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream.” He teaches creative writing at Texas Tech University, and joins me now. Dennis Covington, welcome.

(Photo: Jim Neel)

COVINGTON: Thank you. It’s so nice of you to have me, Steve.

CURWOOD: Where exactly is the “Redneck Riviera,” and how did it get its name?

COVINGTON: That’s a ticklish question. I wanted to put a footnote to the title, because I wanted to say in the footnote, this is not a book about the Alabama Gulf Coast. In my part of the country, Redneck Riviera refers to the Alabama Gulf Coast, particularly a stretch between Fort Morgan east to a lounge called the Floribama, which sits on the Florida/Alabama line. The big event at the Floribama is an annual mullet toss on the beach.

CURWOOD: A fish, you mean.

COVINGTON: Yes, a fish toss. The term, I believe, was coined by Kenny Stabler, who was a quarterback for the University of Alabama, later the Oakland Raiders. In retrospect, though, I see that there are a number of Redneck Rivieras. I know people in Florida sometimes refer to the Florida Panhandle as the Redneck Riviera. And that’s how I use the term when I’m reminiscing about the family vacations we had on the Florida Panhandle at Laguna Beach. But I actually believe that there is a new Redneck Riviera that’s not on the coast. And it is in the very center of Florida, along the Kissimmee River in this defunct subdivision called River Ranch Acres.

CURWOOD: I want to get to the River Ranch Acres in just a minute. But first, at the center of this story -- though he’s not physically present for most of it -- is your father? Right, Sam Covington? And for years, he took you to the ocean, but you write that the generations of Covingtons before your father’s had never even seen the ocean. Why do you suppose he was driven to pile you guys into, what, a station wagon, and head down to the ocean year after year?

COVINGTON: For his generation, a Florida vacation was a step up in life, you know. But the book itself, for me, was kind of a probing into the reasons why it had such an effect on him. Because he was not interested in social status, really, at all. I think it had something to do with a sense of openness and spaciousness, and I believe that he sought that out in recognition of his own smallness in the face of the creation, which is immense.

CURWOOD: By the way, how did you travel down to Laguna Beach, where you went in the Florida Panhandle? And how did your folks handle the driving?

COVINGTON: We went down in a normal sedan, a passenger car. Dad bought them used. The first new car he bought was a 1959 Chevy Impala…

CURWOOD: With those fins?

COVINGTON: With those fins that curled down like wings.


COVINGTON: And it was bright red, fire engine red. My dad was colorblind, and for that reason Mother didn’t want him taking my older sister car shopping with him because she knew that Dad would come home with something like that. But going down to Florida– in Birmingham, the red lights were rather conventional: the red light was on the top, the green light was on the bottom. But there were towns in south Alabama where that was reversed. The green was on top and the red was on the bottom. So my dad ran stoplights all the way to Florida.

CURWOOD: Paint the picture for me when your family would pull up to the beach there. What would happen?

COVINGTON: The first thing my dad would always do was to charge down the dunes and dive headlong into the surf. This always terrified my mother. You know, she would scream from the highway “watch out for the undertow,” “you’re going to have a heart attack.” And he would emerge triumphantly and tell us to “come on in, the water was warm and fine.” Of course, it was cold and everything. And late in life, when he and my mother would come with my wife and I down, even though he had emphysema – he was in , you know, declining health – he would still race down the beach like a man possessed and dive into the Gulf of Mexico.

CURWOOD: Eventually, your father decides to look south for a piece of what you call “the American Dream.” And this all starts when he receives an invitation to a dinner and a presentation at the local Holiday Inn. Dennis, I’m just wondering if you could read from the part of your book about his drive home after that dinner?

COVINGTON: Sure, Steve.

(Cover photo by Jim Neel)

“On this drive, I imagined that Dad was in a hopeful, satisfied mood. I have known such times myself when the world, despite the beating it has given you, relents for just a moment while you dream your exotic, defiant dream. Life won’t take all of you, by God. You will salvage something from this mess and call it your own. It will be your private garden, the place where your imagination can play.

In my father’s case, it was two and half acres of this land he had never seen except in photos, but was now tempted to buy from a salesman named Ray Chase after a dinner at a Holiday Inn. Dad had never met Mr. Chase before, but the salesman seemed to understand exactly what Dad wanted. An investment, they would call it. Inwardly, both men must have winked at the word.

It would be inappropriate for me to speculate about what Mr. Chase thought of my Dad. Surely, he had met many such men on his journeys back and forth across America. A generation of men who had come of age during the Great Depression, made their leap to the middle class, survived the second great war of the century, raised their children, moved into their final house, and now, in their early fifties, dreamed of possibilities beyond the practical demands of keeping a family afloat. Like Dad, they had played by the rules, stuck with the company, paid their taxes, bought life insurance, burial policies, savings bonds, their first new cars.

And now they stood poised at that most powerful and vulnerable time of life when the major financial obligations had been met, but the great journey toward death has not yet fully begun. And the cracks that are beginning to show beneath the feet, the rumors of ill health, the decline of sexual vigor, serve only to propel the dreamer faster and further toward the cry of the one on the far ridge who has seen that elusive and ineluctable something that has until now been missing in life.

River Ranch Acres. In retrospect, I think his buying the property at River Ranch was just a logical extension of all those red lights he had run on the way to Florida. Dad was never happier than he had been on our family vacations to Laguna Beach. Maybe he thought he could buy back that happiness for good.”

CURWOOD: River Ranch Acres. Now, this little piece of promised paradise was the brainchild of a pair of brothers, Jack and Leonard Rosen, I understand, from Baltimore, Maryland. How did they dream up this scheme?

COVINGTON: Jack and Leonard Rosen were former carnival barkers who made their fortune in the cosmetics business by advertising Formula Number Nine on television. The lanolin contained in this concoction was supposed to grow hair. But the cosmetic business was kind of souring on them and they got word that there was a lot of cheap land in southwest Florida and a lot of money to be made.

So they bought some acreage, subdivided it, and promised to build a city there, a city called Cape Coral. They made a lot of initial money on the sales and they ploughed that money back into developing home sites. But then they got the idea that the second time around they might go easier on the development, not develop it so much. They made a huge profit, but all they had were roads into the next development.

By the time they got to River Ranch Acres, they had dispensed with the notion of developments at all. They divided the land into one and one quarter acre parcels -- but they had no intention of bringing power in, or sewage, or water, and no intention of putting roads in.

In fact, they had a deal with the commissioners of Polk County that they would not bring roads in because if there were roads then the county would have to maintain them. So the county kind of looked the other way and let them sell this land to unsuspecting, mainly northerners, or people like my father.

And they reaped an enormous profit. They bought the land for around 150 dollars an acre. They sold it for 1,000 dollars an acre. And the only improvements they made were to build a showplace kind of lodge and western saloon so that when people got there they would have a sense that they were in on the beginning of something grand.

CURWOOD: Now, your father never set foot on this land, right?

COVINGTON: Not on his parcel.

CURWOOD: Didn’t have the curiosity to go out and take a look?

COVINGTON: Didn’t have the means. Didn’t know where it was. It’s a hard place to find, a little two and a half acres in the middle of essentially nowhere.

CURWOOD: So your dad never sees this, you never see it. I mean, this sounds like a lot of problems with this land. But at the end of your father’s life, despite all these problems, he goes over to the courthouse and sets it up so that you can inherit this land. Why do you think that was?

COVINGTON: That’s the great mystery of the book, and I have my guesses now, having gone through this experience. Dad was a stickler for details and also a great admirer of justice. He really believed that dishonesty among men was an aberration.

And he had bought this land, he had paid taxes on it every year, and it had been taken over -- along with the rest of the 40 thousand acre development -- by a hunt club, in what my dad thought was an illegal fashion. They posted armed guards at the only gate, they charged people to join their club and enter for the purposes of hunting. And they discouraged, and sometimes forcibly prevented, legitimate owners from entering.

I think my dad wanted me to have an adventure in his place.

CURWOOD: And you were pretty easy for the bait, I take it, huh?

COVINGTON: It had to percolate for a while, you know? And I think what happened was that I started reaching that age that Dad was when he bought the land in the first place. And I started needing that same kind of sense of infinite space and a place of one’s own, you know? What I wanted to do was build a little retreat down there: a little cabin, and have a well, a solar panel. And I’d take my family down for wilderness vacations. But in order to do that sort of thing, I had to wrestle the land away from the hunt club.

CURWOOD: We’re talking with Dennis Covington, author of “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream.” He’s been telling us the tale of his quest to reclaim his inheritance in Florida’s wild west territory. We’ll hear more from him, and about his run-ins with the local hunt club there, in just a minute. I’m Steve Curwood. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Dave Matthews Band “#34” UNDER THE TABLE AND DREAMING (BMG Music - 1994)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. We’re back with Dennis Covington, author of “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream.” He’s also written the book “Salvation on Sand Mountain.” But we’re talking about your troubles that you encountered in the course of writing this book. At this point, you take off south to reclaim your inheritance in the middle of River Ranch Acres, which is, well, quite a far cry from the western style retreat that its brochures had promised. What did you find when you got to River Ranch?

COVINGTON: River Ranch was a mess. The land had hundreds and hundreds of shacks, trailers, some more elaborate homes, you know, very nice. But all of these structures were erected illegally, on other people’s land, on land like my father’s. When I finally did identify my father’s two and half acres, there was nobody squatting on it but on much of the other land there was.

CURWOOD: I’d like you to read for us about the point when you finally set up camp on your father’s land there on River Ranch Acres. It’s the eve of the hunting season, and you’ve rigged up a small canvas tent.

COVINGTON: “I hadn’t anticipated the terror I’d feel, sitting alone in the canvas house. While on the ridge above me a thousand hunters gathered to wait for dawn and the start of the general gun season. Campfires flickered through the trees, and there was an occasional burst of practice rounds followed by whoops of triumph or derision. I imagined I was on some Civil War battleground – Antietam, the night before the sunken road, the cornfield, the piles of corpses, the defeat.

Most of that night I sat cross-legged on the bunk with a machete in my lap, waiting for the enemy charge. But at some point I fell into a deep, mind-numbing sleep and didn’t wake until full light. I was puttering outside the cabin, warming up beany-weanies on my camp stove and, occasionally, catching the chatter on my CB radio. I wore an orange deer hunter’s cap and had tied an orange flag to the antenna of the Jeep. If they wanted to shoot me, they couldn’t claim they didn’t know I was there.

That afternoon, I sat at the writing desk I had made and took some notes. When the light began to fail I turned on my Coleman battery-operated lantern. All day there had been shots nearby but I hadn’t worried much about them until I heard some that sounded much too close for comfort.

About 20 yards from the cabin a handful of men were drinking beer and shooting into the palmetto, apparently at nothing in particular. They looked like the kind of men that hung around the Mirees’ campfire. Hog hunters in half-soled rubber boots and grimy work caps. They were chewing tobacco, and the laughter after they spit had something familiar to it, a sharp, malicious edge. They were like my people back in Alabama and maybe that’s what scared me the most.

I waited until they finally moved farther on the road; then I took my time cleaning up the place, so they wouldn’t sense my urgency in case they happened to be watching secretly from the palmetto breaks. I zipped up the door of the cabin but otherwise left it as it was, the Coleman lantern burning at my writing desk. Then I cranked up the Jeep and drove to the nearest motel, the Indian Lake, to spend the night.

I’d probably been a fool to spend the night before the opening of hunting season in a canvas cabin with a machete in my lap. I wasn’t going to be twice a fool by staying there over a Saturday night. “

CURWOOD: What happened the next day when you returned to this camp? This camp that was there to claim your inheritance, your dad’s inheritance. He had left you this land.

COVINGTON: I got there at first light. I noticed that there were two bullet holes right by the door. One of the bullets had gone through the canvas and exploded the Coleman lantern. The other bullet went through, missed the lantern, but there was a lot of debris in the cabin. I got the distinct impression that somebody was trying to kill me.

CURWOOD: So, they shoot up your camp this time. You pack up your bags and split? What do you do?

COVINGTON: Well, I did what any other self-respecting Alabama boy would have done. I bought two parcels of land for back taxes on either side of my property, so I would be sure to let them know that I had no intention of going anywhere. And then I bought a gun. I’d never owned a gun before. I didn’t know anything about them. But I’d go out there and I’d target practice.

And, you know, they stopped shouting insults at me, anyway, and threats. But in my absence it was shot up again. And somebody, whoever had perpetrated this, had left a dead armadillo in the center of the cabin. It was known among the hunt club membership that I had a particular affection for armadillos.

CURWOOD: And, at this point, you’ve had enough now.

COVINGTON: Yes, I did. I kind of went crazy. I became a kind of insurgent, I suppose. There was no entry point other than the hunt club gate. At night I would dress in black and put lampblack under my eyes, and, armed with my revolver and my shotgun, I would cut the fence and make my way into my little canvas house where I would stand guard all night, waiting for someone to appear out of the palmetto leaves and beg to be shot. I never saw anybody. But it gave me a sense, at least, of having done something to protect the property.

CURWOOD: I mean, it seems like a pretty simple and straightforward idea that if you own land you can claim it. Why was this such an impossible idea on the River Ranch Acres?

COVINGTON: One of the problems there was that the power structure within the county was intertwined with the hunt club itself. There were some members of the sheriff’s department that were members of the hunt club. And the attorney for the hunt club was the president of the Florida Bar Association, a close friend of the governor. So, in a way, you had a kind of good old boy network.

The hunt club saw the legitimate owners of land in River Ranch as being, you know, essentially suckers. And they were characterized as being from up north somewhere and they’d never come down there anyway. So, I believe that it was that protection that a subculture has for its own that prevented outsiders like me from coming in and claiming what was rightfully ours.

CURWOOD: What did it take for you to finally put this to rest?

COVINGTON: Ultimately, I stopped cutting the fence when I came upon an accident on the way to Lake Wales. Two horses had gotten out of their paddocks, and a car had hit one of them and killed the horse, and injured the driver of the car. And I realized in that instant that there’s a reason for fences, and that it’s wrong to cut them, no matter what the circumstances are.

And so I decided that, you know, maybe that’s not what Dad wanted me to do anyway. Maybe he had something different in mind. And I started thinking about his love of the west, his need for open space. So I went out to Idaho and found a parcel of land out there, and bought it. And I brought with me my dad’s workshop that he had built in his back yard 30 years before. I erected it on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley and a view of the mountains.

CURWOOD: What is it about the need to own land, do you think? Because, at this point, it seems that you’ve moved beyond just wanting to take back your father’s property.

COVINGTON: I’m not sure whether it’s a guy thing or not, but I do believe that the territorial imperative is built into us biologically. Now, having said that, this book, for me, is sort of an exploration of one of the ultimate questions of literature, western literature. And that is, who inherits the land?

Finally, I, of course, believe that it belongs to all of us and that the private ownership of land in America is kind of an anomaly, kind of a strange thing that’s happened as a result of the legal system we inherited. Nonetheless, it’s part of us, and wars over land have been with us since antiquity. So, I wanted a piece of land out in Idaho so that I could sit in the middle of the desert and listen to the coyotes.

CURWOOD: I have one final question and that has to do with a point that you bring up in “Redneck Riviera,” which is this: sometimes the good part of a story is not even in the story. Sometimes the good part is what’s been left out. So tell me, looking back on your experience and what brought you there, what is the good part of your story?

COVINGTON: The good part of the story that I’ve just told happened at a moment when I had just decided to go claim my father’s land that he had given to me. And I had bought a GPS device, a global positioning system. And I was testing it out and I happened to be in front of my home, my house, in Birmingham. And I could see one of my daughters rehearsing a scene from “Grease” that she and the neighborhood kids were going to put on. At the other window I could see my older daughter at the Internet, at the computer. And then my wife came out of the door to let the cats out and I saw only her hair, which was shining in the sunlight. And I initialed that device by calling that place home. And then I walked inside.

CURWOOD: Dennis Covington is author of “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream.” Dennis, thanks so much for speaking with me.

COVINGTON: Thank you. Take care.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder “Theme from Southern Comfort” MUSIC BY RY COODER (BMI/Venice Boulevard Music – 1981)]

Related link:
RedNeck Riviera by Dennis Covington

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The Secret Life of Lead

CURWOOD: Lead is not only a problem in drinking water. Though lead paint in American homes was outlawed in the 1970s, it is still present in older homes, and it is still putting pregnant women and children at risk. For the past year, Living on Earth has been following the work of researchers who look at ways lead can affect children, including lowered IQ, impulse control problems, and juvenile delinquency. These scientists are examining the ways children might come in contact with lead in their homes, particularly when they’re toddlers. And there’s another question they hope to answer – how much lead passes from a pregnant mother to her fetus? Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber has this latest installment in our series, “The Secret Life of Lead.”


CALLAHAN: Should we change your diaper? I know that’s not a problem. What’s the matter, huh?


GRABER: Stephanie Callahan sits in her living room and jiggles her newborn daughter Kylie Renee on her lap. Callahan and her 11-day-old baby are part of a three-year lead study run by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the University of Cincinnati. Scientists want to know how low levels of lead affect children, and figure out how to clean up the home environment.

In this part of the study, the researchers are trying to determine how much lead transfers from the mother to the baby in utero, and they’re hoping meconium can help them figure it out. Meconium is the greenish, tarry substance that makes up a baby’s first stools. It’s not actually fecal matter. Instead, it’s made up of bile, mucous, parts of the baby’s intestines as they hollow out, and substances from amniotic fluid.

As a new mom, Stephanie Callahan played a crucial role in this study, making sure her baby’s first dirty diapers didn’t end up in the hospital trash.

CALLAHAN: So, it was kind of weird. I felt awkward hitting the call button, not saying I need pain medicine, or I need this … Um, I got a dirty diaper, you need to come get it [LAUGHS].

GRABER: These dirty diapers, with up to a quarter cup of meconium, are now frozen and stored in Cincinnati. Once the first hundred mothers in the study give birth, the babies’ diapers will be sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta where the meconium will be analyzed.


GRABER: At a CDC laboratory, chemist Dana Barr and a lab technician use a meconium sample to demonstrate their research methods. Barr says while testing blood or urine allows scientists to evaluate what the baby has been exposed to recently, her hope is that meconium will show what the baby has been exposed to over many months.

Dana Barr and lab technician Donny Whitehead.

BARR: And since meconium starts accumulating in the bowels of the infant right around 12 to 14 weeks gestation, and it continues to accumulate throughout pregnancy, you’re theoretically getting everything that could possibly be deposited into that meconium over that period of time. And so, you perhaps can look at exposure over the last two trimesters of pregnancy.


GRABER: The lab technician mixes the meconium with a blender-like instrument to make sure chemicals and cells are distributed evenly throughout the sample. Barr says the device is a miniature version of something you’d find in the kitchen.

BARR: A lot of the techniques we use in the laboratory are very analogous to cooking things.

GRABER: The technician carefully measures out a half gram of meconium and then adds a solvent, such as methanol or methylene chloride, which is designed to extract various chemicals from the substance.

BARR: If you were preparing a chicken stock, for instance, you would want to make sure the chicken was fully immersed in the water, and that you boiled it and you let it sit in that water for a long time. We’re doing the same thing here. We’re trying to get some of the – not the stock out of the chicken here, but we’re trying to get the chemicals we want to measure out of the meconium. And so it’s really important to mix it together and let it sit together for a while before we take off the solvent layer.


GRABER: The mixture then goes into a centrifuge so the liquid solvents that now contain the chemicals separate from the gooey meconium.

BARR: The part I’m about to show you is the part that makes our lab really unique.


GRABER: Barr walks to another room, which is filled with large beige pieces of equipment. Small robotic arms on one machine pick up tiny vials filled with liquids to be analyzed. This expensive equipment can detect and analyze miniscule amounts of chemicals.


GRABER: Studies from all over the country send samples here for testing, including a biomonitoring project looking at toxins in breast milk that was recently featured on Living on Earth. In this study, researchers aren’t only testing for lead. They’re also checking levels of pesticides, and of mercury. Like lead, these all are neurotoxins and can affect a baby’s development. Barr says she is now in the process of determining which solvents will best separate lead and the other neurotoxins from the Cincinnati meconium.

Chemist Dana Barr of the CDC.

BARR: You know, it’s a part of the research process. And it takes time, often. Sometimes you’re very successful on the first few attempts. And really the development is not the arduous process. We know enough about the chemicals that we can easily develop it. It’s validating and make sure it’s a rock solid method before we apply it to the samples. That’s the part that takes a long time.

GRABER: At Case Western University in Ohio, Cynthia Bearer is the primary researcher on the lead and meconium study, collaborating with chemist Dana Barr. Bearer pioneered using meconium to check how many alcoholic drinks a mother consumed during pregnancy – an important quantitative move beyond just examining whether the mom had been drinking at all. Until then, scientists studied meconium to determine whether or not the mother had used illegal drugs. In her research, Bearer began with alcohol as a type of test case for studying environmental neurotoxins because both alcohol and these toxins affect the developing brains of fetuses.

BEARER: But you can ask a woman how much alcohol she’s had to drink and get some idea of what her exposure has been, whereas with a lot of environmental toxins that’s very difficult to do. So I used alcohol as setting up a system for, hopefully, that I could apply for environmental toxins.

GRABER: Bearer hopes her research will eventually lead to routine meconium tests in hospitals. She says right now newborns are given a blood test and the babies that test positive for rare genetic diseases can receive medicine or dietary changes that will help them lead normal lives.

BEARER: And if we had some way of screening newborns for exposures that were occurring in their environment, and we had these interventions where we could modify their environment so they weren’t exposed anymore, or we could intervene with some of these early learning paradigms, then we could improve their outcomes, too. We can improve these kids’ outcomes, and we’re not doing that now.

GRABER: If analyzing meconium proves successful as a measure of babies’ exposure to neurotoxins in utero, the next step is to determine what effect these levels have. And for the next three years, as the babies grow, members of the research team in Cincinnati will monitor their development. For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber.

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Emerging Science Note/Changing Forests

CURWOOD: Coming up: biomonitoring – a movement to help people find out how many PCB’s and other chemicals are in their bodies. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Anyone who lives near a hog farm will tell you the smell isn’t pretty. The source of that smell is large open pits filled with hog waste that’s been flushed out of hog houses. In recent years, many of these pits have been decommissioned. For instance, in North Carolina there are 1,700 inactive sites.

To clean up these pits, farmers have to drain the liquid and then truck the solid waste away for use as fertilizer. But farmers complain this process is very costly. Now, there may be a cheaper and greener solution to this disposal problem: poplar trees.

Researchers in North Carolina have taken a half-acre pit, drained out the liquid, filled the hole with soil and planted over 300 poplar trees. The roots of these trees grow faster and deeper than most others, and scientists have found they can absorb 3,000 gallons of sludge per acre per day. This sludge contains nutrients for the trees, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The heavy metals in the waste, like copper and zinc, are stored in the trees’ tissue.

Researches believe the trees will act as a sponge and prevent these contaminants from leaking into groundwater. Hog farmers can opt to harvest the trees for lumber once the site is completely cleaned up. Scientists estimate that would take up to 15 years.

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

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: The Pogues “A Pistol for Paddy Garcia” RUM, SODOMY & THE LASH (Wea International – 1985)]

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Pampered Pets

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. With 66 million dogs living in American households, and even more cats, pets are big business, worth over 30 billion dollars a year to the U.S. economy. The money goes for food and medical care, and also for such trendy items as doggy cafés and doggy massage. The reward, of course, is unconditional love, or at least an occasional friendly lick. Research shows that having a pet can be beneficial to the health of the owner. Still, the line that used to divide how we cared for pets and how we care for ourselves is becoming increasingly blurred. Living on Earth’s Susan Shepherd has our story.


SCHROFF: Why don’t we give Cody some more pain meds? I mean, when you get a chance, Hillary. I know you’ve got your own thing going on.

SHEPHERD: It’s a cold, snowy night and Vescone Animal Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts, is bustling with activity.


SCHROFF: He has one on his back, he has one right by his anus, and he has two on his right hind leg and he’s very painful.

SHEPHERD: Dr. Amy Schroff runs this clinic like a firm and practical loving mother, taking care of clients, employees, and animals alike. Now she’s examining Skippy, a terrier attacked earlier this evening by an unknown animal in the back yard.

Dr. Amy Schroff and Dr. Heather Chalfant with a patient at the hospital.

SCHROFF: Those are some pretty nasty wounds back there. Yeah, I think some nice narcotics have your name on them somewhere.

SHEPHERD: It’s hard to tell who needs the narcotics more--the pup or his owner, a middle-aged woman who is clearly distraught. But just wait till she gets the bill. Though your average Skippy can cost his owner somewhere between 200 and 800 dollars a year, many of the animals in the intensive care unit of this hospital tonight are ringing up larger costs than that.


SHEPHERD: Just down the hall an English Setter named Missy cries and pants as she lies in a concrete enclosure on a blanket. Her neck is wrapped with pink bandages, and her shaved body is bound by a metal brace. She has a feeding tube inserted in her esophagus through a hole in her throat, and an IV catheter. Dr. Schroff and Dr. Heather Chalfant talk about her condition

CHALFANT: Yes, she was hit by a car…

SCHROFF: …flail chest …

CHALFANT: She’s had surgery, too.

SCHROFF: Oh, she did?


SHEPHERD: Out of the eight or ten dogs here tonight, at least two of them will run up medical bills of close to 8,000 dollars. The highest bill in this hospital’s history was 22,000 dollars for a very sick dog that survived for another year. It’s all part of the 11 billion dollars a year Americans spend on pet health care, up from 800 million in 1980. Part of that increase is because of animal hospitals like these.

Dr. Jack Walther is president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In the past few years, he’s watched the veterinarian profession grow much more technologically advanced.

WALTHER: I’ve been in small animal practice right on 40 years, so I came out of an era where we had no specialists. That’s all changed.

SHEPHERD: Dr. Walther says the pet-owning public has also changed.

WALTHER: As we see the American public growing older, their pets have become a much bigger part of their later life. And as a result, they want the best care possible.

Two animal care technicians care for a dog at Vescone Animal Hospital in Waltham, MA.

SHEPHERD: Clearly, not everyone can afford to spend thousands or even hundreds of dollars on a pet. And now that this new and improved care is so readily available, how do people make the decision, often in the spur of the moment, to begin a treatment that could end up putting them in debt? Dr. Schroff says she tries to make pet owners more comfortable with their decision, no matter what it is.

SCHROFF: We don’t place judgement on people. The fact that someone will bring their animal in to see us obviously shows that these people really love their pet. They really want to try and do the best they can. And euthanasia is sometimes the best option.

SHEPHERD: But Dr. Schroff is equally adamant that she was not put on earth to be, as she puts it, a killing machine, and won’t euthanize animals for their owner’s convenience. But if the question was once, ‘What amount is too much to spend on a pet to save its life?’ Now the question is, ‘How much is too little?’ Many vets don’t know themselves what they feel about when to euthanize, much less how to counsel their patients. The AVMA’s doctor Walther says that the vet’s role has changed.

WALTHER: I really became much more of a family advisor, if you will. Pet owners depend on my advice far more than they did when I first started practice.

SHEPHERD: If people are now looking at their pets as part of the family, as kind of quasi children, how do you ever make the decision not to spend $22,000 to save a pet’s life? A person would hardly consider cost when deciding on a child’s lifesaving medical treatment. But even Dr. Schroff is uneasy about the implications of spending so much on pets.

SCHROFF: I think it’s an astonishing contrast. My father is from India, and I’ve traveled to other parts of the world where I have relatives, cousins who are medical doctors, that don’t even have access to the medical equipment that we have.

SHEPHERD: And yet, with pet health insurance available, more specialists entering the field and more households owning pets, we’re likely to make animal health care an even larger part of the economic pie. What’s causing this trend? And is it a good thing?

KATZ: People are turning to dogs more and more for emotional support.

SHEPHERD: That’s author John Katz, who’s written several books about dogs. His latest “The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love and Family” follows 12 people for a year and explores their relationship with their dogs. Katz thinks we should be wary of the deep emotional intensity of some of these relationships.

KATZ: They see dogs as members of their families, they see dogs as childlike, they attribute human emotions to them, they anthropomorphasize them, they see them as spiritual. And the intensity, fueled by I think by the fragmented society – there’s more divorce, more people living alone, work is insecure – they are turning more and more to dogs for companionship. And I think that’s a beautiful thing in many ways, and it’s also a troubling thing in many ways.

SHEPHERD: Although Katz is unsettled by this over-emotionalization of pets which, he says, is causing us to see them as human, it’s not because he doesn’t love animals.


KATZ: Yes, I love you too, girlie. You want another cookie?

SHEPHERD: It’s a brilliantly sunny winter day at his farmhouse on a hill overlooking pasture and weathered barns in upstate New York, and Katz is in the process of feeding two donkeys, 15 sheep and two dogs.


KATZ: Come here, Fanny. Come on, girl.

SHEPHERD: Caring for so many animals is no mean feat, considering the below zero thermometer readings on so many days this winter. He recently suffered frostbite on several fingers and toes trying to save a dying Carol.

KATZ: Donkeys are among the world’s, I think, sweetest and least appreciated creatures. You haven’t really lived until you’ve given a donkey a rectal thermometer at four o’clock in the morning at minus 30 degrees. It’s really changed my life (laughs). Rose, come by.


SHEPHERD: But his real loves are his two border collies, Rose and Orson. Katz directs eight-month-old Rosey as she runs through the fresh blanket of snow to keep the sheep away from the donkey chow.


KATZ: Rose is indispensable. I would not last an hour here without her.

SHEPHERD: Rose is small for her breed, and still a pup, but she moves the heavy and lumbering sheep around as if they were nimble mice.

SHEPHERD: Will she make our lunch for us?

KATZ: She’s really so great.

SHEPHERD: Rose is so great that it’s hard to understand how Katz could resist thinking about her as having human qualities. And Katz admits he falls into that trap himself. When he first got his male border collie, Orson, he had to put a note on his computer reminding him ‘He’s not human.’

KATZ: There’s a trainer named Carolyn Wilkie who I write about in the book quite a bit. And I said to her one day, “If anything happened to me you’d have to shoot this dog because he could never live with anyone else.” And she got in my face and she said, “Listen pal, if anything happened to you, I’d buy a pound of beef liver and in 48 hours this dog would forget that you ever walked the earth. And don’t you forget it.”

SHEPHERD: It seems that as loneliness and alienation increase in our society, so does the importance of dogs in our lives. And there may be some evidence to support that notion. Katz talks about an article in the Journal of Evolution and Behavior which concludes that:

KATZ: Dogs are the world’s most effective social parasites. That is, they have brilliantly injected themselves into the social system of another species, which very few species ever do. And they do this by tricking us, essentially, by showing a narrow range of humanlike emotions – affection, hostility, anxiety, neediness, play. And they trick us into thinking they have the entire range of human emotions, that they’re human. And so we, therefore, attach to them as if they were people.

SHEPHERD: Dogs may in fact be the animal kingdom’s master manipulators, judging by the behavior of those who love them. Take a look at Bark Magazine, published out of San Francisco. Seventy-five thousand people subscribe to this glossy monthly. And some recent articles include teaching your dog how to read, tips on how to include your dog in your wedding, and an article that starts with the question “Is your canine companion a fur-ball of stress?” and recommends dog yoga as a way to calm your dog down. “Animals know how to be in the moment and how to completely relax,” says the dog yoga instructor interviewed in the article.

SCHROFF: I don’t know that I really have a professional opinion about dog yoga [LAUGHTER]. I don’t!

SHEPHERD: Dr. Amy Schroff may not, but John Katz does. And he blames it partly on his own generation.

KATZ: You know, the boomers created the myth of the gifted and talented child, and now they’re creating the idea of the gifted and talented dog. I had one person e-mail me and said, you know, Mondays we do agility, Tuesdays we do obedience, Wednesdays we go herding -- Thursdays are open, what can we do? There is a widening chasm between what dogs need and what we want to give them.

SHEPHERD: Is this helping dogs? It appears not, at least in terms of dog behavior. I asked Dr. Walther of the AVMA whether we can say that dogs are, well, worse than they used to be.

WALTHER: Absolutely. Yeah, we can (laughs). I think every one of them is in my practice.

SHEPHERD: Katz agrees. He says fewer than three percent of dog owners train their dogs at all, which could be why over 400,000 people were bitten seriously enough to require hospitalization last year. The dog rescue culture may be feeding into this – dogs with behavior problems that before would have been put to sleep are now being saved and put up for adoption.

KATZ: Thirty or 40 years ago you didn’t rescue a dog, you just adopted a dog at the shelter. Now you rescue a dog -- and rescue is a very emotionally charged term, it has all kinds of intense connotations about it. And, you know, I’m always getting chased by people who tell me that their dogs were abused. “I’m sorry my dog bit you on the butt, but he was abused.” “I’m sorry my dog jumped on you but he was abused, and, therefore, I can’t train him.”

SHEPHERD: And because we are beginning to see dogs as a new kind of in-between human and pet species, that’s being played out in the legal realm, as well. In a San Diego divorce case last year, a couple spent over $150,000 on a custody fight over their dog, Gigi. The judge allowed a “day in the life of Gigi” video to be considered as evidence before deciding to grant custody to the wife. Her ex got visitation.

But other perhaps more far-reaching issues are coming to the legal fore that involve the very essence of what it means to be an animal. Several state legislatures are rewriting animal protection laws so that pet owners have the right to pain and suffering damages over and above the worth of the pet, as well as punitive damages for acts of abuse or neglect. This could mean that veterinarians will someday be facing the same kinds of staggering lawsuits that doctors now must contend with, and it’s got veterinarians worried. It also means the rest of us could be facing larger legal bills, and larger court-mandated payments to pet owners, if we’re unlucky enough to harm someone else’s animal.

In addition, several cities have passed ordinances that say animals’ owners should be called “companions,” which could possibly change the rights of people who own pets. There are legal variations of how this would look. Cass Sunstein is a constitutional scholar at the University of Chicago Law school who has written about this topic.

SUNSTEIN: The most radical version is that there shouldn’t be pets at all and that, in the long run, animals should be wild and free. They would abolish the institution of pet ownership. A less radical idea is that once animals aren’t property any more they have the kind of status of very old people or very young people, who are not owned but who are cared for. So instead of thinking of animals as objects, the less radical version says we should think of animals as more akin to children -- people who we have duties toward, and people who have rights of their own.

SHEPHERD: But are we sure we want to be equating animals with children in the eyes of the law? John Katz thinks not.

KATZ: I am responsible for my dogs. I am responsible for training them, for caring for them, and for showing them how to live in the world. The idea that a dog has codified legal rights? It’s a tricky issue for me. There’s a group now that’s trying to pass a legal code for the adoption of dogs that would give dogs the right to switch homes if they’re unhappy. I don’t even want to think about how that’s going to work.

SHEPHERD: Several weeks after my trip to the animal ER I went to see Missy, recovering at home from her accident.

SHEPHERD: Hello, how are you?

GERSTMEYER: I’m fine, thank you.

SHEPHERD: Pam Gerstmeyer says that plenty of people were surprised that she spent so much money on Missy. But then stories of others paying for heroic treatment for their pets began to trickle in. She says that even though Missy’s treatment didn’t put her family into debt, they still had to have the conversation.

GERSTMEYER: My husband and I talked it over. I had badly broken my leg at one time and he said, ‘Well, we didn’t put you to sleep, did we? No, we did not!’ [LAUGHS]. And she’s a member of our family and we’re going to do whatever we can. We are a very fortunate country, a very indulged bunch of people. But I’m not going to make excuses for what we did.

SHEPHERD: That said, Gerstmeyer has three grown daughters and says she would never equate her dog with her children.

GERSTMEYER: I think you have to remember that a dog is a dog. And maybe with this accident things have changed that way, with our relationship with her. But still she is just a dog. Just a dog that we spent 8,000 dollars on, you know. I mean, hello!

SHEPHERD: As we’re talking, Missy is lying complacently nearby – perhaps listening to the drone of our voices, smelling all of the pungent house scents, and dreaming of chasing squirrels. It’s still hard for her to walk, or move at all, and she’s not eating much. But is she glad to be alive? Does she even understand that concept at all? Many dogs owners would say yes.

GERSTMEYER: I think she probably looks and says, ‘Oh my goodness, what did I do to deserve this?’ Now I am not going to – I think this is where people go off the deep end – take her to a dog psychologist. She’s going to have to work out her issues by herself. [LAUGHS] She’s going to have to just deal, and cope, and realize, you know, we are having a good life here!

SHEPHERD: For Living on Earth, I’m Susan Shepherd.

[MUSIC: Lauren Canyon "Dances with Dogs" UGLY DOGS NEED MORE LOVE (Quicksilver Records - 2002)]

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CURWOOD: We leave you this week waiting in the world’s busiest train station. Sarah Peebles created this soundscape of the hustle and bustle of the Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.

[EARTH EAR: Sarah Peebles "Shinjuku Station (south entrance)" WALKING THROUGH TOKYO AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY (Post-Concrete -- 2001)]


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Ingrid Lobet, and Jeff Young. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Al Avery mixed this program and runs the website. We had help from Nal Tero. Alison Dean composed our themes. 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, 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.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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