Sunday, November 9, 2008

6 Flags Discovery Kingdom No Fun for Animals

Well, I made it to the San Francisco area a few weeks ago, settling into Concord in a rented room where a nice lady boards me and 3 other guys. I started working right away at the Contra Costa county animal shelter for Dr. Bachman (see Romania blog), and checking out the area on weekends. After reading on a website about the Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in nearby Vallejo, Ca, I had to check it out for myself and see if it was as bad as was claimed. And I brought a couple of cameras with me to document any cruelty I might find. (I spent as little $ as possible getting in: I bought the internet discount ticket, and didn't park in their $15 ripoff parking lot but instead parked across the street. I also didn't spend a penny on anything extra, not even a stick of gum.)
I spent all day roaming around checking out every animal, exhibit, cage and show I could find. If I had gone a year ago I probably wouldn't have noticed much wrong with them. But the last year has been an incredible period of learning: while preparing for my round-the-world trip I spent several months online researching zoos, sanctuaries and animal cruelty in general. Then for 6 months I traveled the world checking out all kinds of animals in as many places as I could (all in this blog).
That, and 14 years as a veterinary technician working in emergency clinics, had taught me to be a bit more observant than the average hot-dog-munching theme-park visitor. I filmed the pink flamingos and their mutilated wings (done to keep them from flying away.) Check out the photo: see how the wing on the left has been amputated? The other birds were all the same.) Worse, their pond was right next to a huge, loud ride booming and hissing every few minutes, causing them all to flap their wings agitatedly. Some life, huh?
I took photos of the shy, nocturnal fennec foxes in their little cage situated right next to a tilt-a-whirl type ride, and the alligators stuck in a small pen within spitting distance of a huge rollercoaster. It was the same with the camels, lions, tigers, cougars, the list goes on. The lions had a pile of rocks to lie on and little else.

The giraffe pen was small, bare, and ugly, but it was right in front of a pretty river which gave it a bigger look and distracted the eye from the actual habitat. It was amost an optical illusion, as you can see in the photo. I asked a staff person in front of the giraffes, "Is this all they get?" She replied that they also get "walked around the park every day" when the cusomers werent' there. Now, I'm no expert on giraffes, but doesn't that sound unlikely to you, that someone "walks" them around the park? I asked her how they went about that, but she "didn't know, as she was only there during open hours". If you worked there, right in front of the tallest animals in the world, wouldn't you kind of wonder how they were walked like pets around your place of employment? Wouldn't you at least ask someone about it? Or even come early to see it once, if you had an iota of human curiosity?

I was lied to twice again. Once by a handler of a bald eagle, whose right wing was hanging down the whole time; I asked her about it and was told, "Oh, he's just tired". Look at the photo: does that look normal to you? Ever seen a "tired" bird hanging one wing (just one, mind you) down like that? And once again by an elephant handler who, when I asked about the bullhook he was holding just to see what he would say, answered, "Oh, they have skin three inches thick. They don't feel a thing." That was news to me, having studied elephants and read many times that their skin was up to one inch thick in certain areas but paper thin around the mouth, ears, and mucous membranes, a fact the handlers know all too well and use their bullhooks there for maximum effect.

The 6 Flags staff seems to take advantage of the general ignorance of most visitors of animal husbandry and behavior, and help perpetuate myths, misbeliefs and outright lies. The way they did it so easily and efforlessly led me to believe they were well practiced in it, and surely are not going against any kind of company policies in doing so. That three employees would risk being fired in one day lying to a single visitor implies that others, perhaps most, do it quite frequently. Lesson: don't believe what they tell you.

They put on little shows, wear goofy costumes and tell lame jokes, and give you brief glimpses of beautiful animals. (One of them looked uncannily like my nephew Eric-- the staff guy, that is!)

I also had to see "Shouka's Celebration" show, and fell in love with the big orca. But she didn't have much to celebrate, having barely enough room to swim around and dive in her pool. It looks big to untrained eyes; however take the water out and put in a large land mammal, and you have a barren, empty, cruelly boring and inadequate little space that angers people with enough sense to see beyond the booming music and silly tricks. The dolphins looked no better off. I videotaped the worst places (and later posted some on YouTube.)
But mostly I just watched the elephants, a mix of African and Asian females in barren, ridiculously small, and ludicrously inadequate pens. The poor elephant patiently giving rides to visitors and their toddlers paced a little circuitous path over and over through what was a nice, green, shaded area. But right next to it, practically unnoticed by anyone, were the remaining elephants, languishing in a barren, boring little dirt pen. The were standing around looking bored and depressed, one leaning to take weight off one obviously painful leg. What looked small was in fact even smaller than it appeared; the area was divided into two smaller pens to separate the Africans from the Asians.
I finished by watching the "Elephant Discovery" or "Encounter" or whatever it was called. It was a short demonstration of some basic skills they had taught Tava, the matriarch of the little clan. She was absolutely beautiful, but when I really looked closely at her, her body language spoke loudly of hopeless resignation to her fate. Her handler kept telling her "Trunk" upon which she would immediately raise her trunk up onto her head, undoubtedly to give her a happy, saluting kind of look. But check out the photo I took (attached) and see an expression undeniably sad. I wondered what kind of brutal training had made her fearful enough to keep raising her trunk so quickly for a puny human.

So that's 6 Flags today: very showy, all loud music, bright colors, fast rides, overpriced junk food and just plain junk for sale, and squeezed down among and between the rides, crowds and theaters, live the animals. Enduring long days of noisy, vibrating machines and screaming riders, these wonderful wild creatures, who should be in quiet forests and deep jungles, getting brief glances from passersby who hurry by to catch the next roller coaster ride, or pause for a moment to point out some animal in a cage to their toddler, thereby reinforcing at an early age the belief that it's okay to keep them captive their entire lives simply for us to stare at for a brief moment, then move on to watch the magician's show around the corner.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Conquering the West

Driving through New Mexico after leaving Albuquerque, I was on the phone with Ramsay when I almost missed a sign that said something like "See the Wolves! Wolf Sanctuary detour here". That sounded like something right up my alley, so I turned around and took the less-beaten path off interstate U.S. 40 and into unknown territory. It turns out the sanctuary is in the middle of the Zuni indian reservation, a vast, wild and rugged area that was MUCH more interesting than the scenery along the highway.
I would have arrived at Wild Spirit sanctuary past closing time, but for some reason they don't go by daylight savings time there, so I luckily had an hour left to get on the last tour of the day.
It was fascinating. The little headquarters was cozy, the people friendly, and, of course, the stars of the show, the wolves themselves were brilliant. They didn't even have to do anything... just seeing them, being in their presence, was amazing. And when they all started howling, it was enough to give you chills. We were also lucky enough to be there when one extra-tame one was being walked, and got to pet him. To top it all off, we got a private tour into the fox's den by the director, Leyton Cougar, who had some fascinating stories to tell.

I wish I could squeeze more photos of the wolves into this blog; I took some pretty good ones. But you can go to their website and see more at:

After stopping for the night in Flagstaff, I headed north up into Utah to the Best Friends Society's animal sanctuary, where I was to do two days of volunteering to get an idea of what went on there. (I've learned that the best way to get behind the scenes of an organization is to actually work there, so just taking a tour as a visitor wasn't enough).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Into the Heart of America

Leaving Memphis and the green Tennessee hills took me away from everything familiar that I'd driven through my whole life. I've traveled around, but never driven from my house to the kind of flat, dry places I was seeing now. While in Tennessee I could still imagine that I was still sort of in the East. But when entering Arkansas, there was no denying it: I was in the boonies. On a map it's almost half-way across the country.
And I have to admit it wasn't as boring as I thought it would be. Besides the excitement of finally fulfilling my dream of a cross-country drive, the landscape was so different from what I was used to it made it kind of exciting. And I was looking forward to stopping in Little Rock, a town I knew absolutely nothing about (which made it interesting) except that the Clintons were from there, and that Marilyn Monroe sang a song about it in a movie.
It turned out to be a pretty nice little city, small enough to zip in & out of, and big enough to have some cool stuff to see. It was a beautiful day, and I was hoping to have time to check out the Clinton Presidential Library, which I'd heard was really something, but didn't know where it was. Finding the way downtown, I stopped on the main drag (I forget the name of it) near the Missouri River, where places like St. Vincent Plaza and the "Flying Fish" restaurant were. The Plaza was a little park on the river, and the "Fish" turned out to be a great casual place to stop by for a plate of clams & fries.
But looking down the street, I spotted the unmistakeable silhouette of the Clinton Library, hanging over the river just a few blocks away. So in I went, paying my entrance fee and soaking up all the pro-Clinton publicity one could hope for in one building. Seriously, it was a pretty good museum of the political events of the '90's, and even had perfect replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, as well as one of his presidential limos, with bullet-proof glass windows so thick you could barely see through it. It may well have been the one I saw pass by on Pennsylvania Avenue after his second inauguration. Hillary was waving, barely discernible through that heavy window. After 9/11, I can only imagine George Bush's limo windows must now be able to stop a tank.
I paused to check out some pups for sale on a street corner, then I was on my way to Oklahoma, which arrived surprisingly quickly. I don't know what tapes or radio stations I was listening to in Arkansas, but they must have been good because I barely remember driving through the state. Before I knew it it was dark and I was in Oklahoma city for the night. Finding a Best Western, I settled in for an evening of listening to TV while sending emails.
The next day I went to see the Memorial, officially known as the National Memorial & Museum, build where the Alfred Murrah federal building was bombed in 1995. It's a must-see for anyone even passing through, and I quickly found my way there, in the heart of the city. They did a great job, bulding a park where the building used to be, with ponds, trees, and those iconic chairs, one for each victim, in a grassy field. One special item was the "Survivor Tree", a grand old American elm that actually survived the blast, and still bears the blackened scars of that infamous day.
I also had to stop at the Memorial Fence and read some of the touching messages and see the many gifts, patches, crosses, flags, wreaths and other items attached to it. I had a sudden urge to add to it. Searching my car, I found nothing suitable. Then I remembered that soon I'd have to get new license plates in California, so I quickly unbolted my "H1BR1D" plate and clipped it onto the wall, showing that someone driving from Virginia had stopped by to visit. I also added my luggage tag (Dulles to Zurich) from an old trip. It's nice to know that they'll be added to the museum's collection of thousands of other items left on the fence.
There was much, much more to the memorial, not even including the museum, but space prohibits including it all. And time was pressing, so I headed once again westward, this time making my way across the panhandle of Texas to New Mexico. Now I was not only half way across, but truly in the West. The panhandle is the "chimney" top portion of the state, and looks rather small compared to the rest, so I figured it would pass quickly by. But, unlike Arkansas, it seemed to take a very long time, in spite of that wonderful 75 mph speed limit (which meant I could drive 84!) Forunately I had my new cell phone with me, and remembering some old friends who live in Texas, the Ramsey twins, I spent several hours catching up with them while driving the endless miles. One of them, Ramsay (yes, that's his name), told me to look out for the big balloon festival in Albuquerque that might be coming up soon. I doubted I'd hit the city the same weekend, but appreciated the info.
About the only interesting things I saw in the whole panhandle were lots of colossal windmills, and possibly the best highway rest stop in the country. It was a uniquely wedge-shaped building with gardens, a good information booth, and even a tiny museum-quality display on windmills. Some Texans must complain about the money spent on a place that mostly "out-of-staters" will use, but we travelers certainly appreciated it.
It was dark by the time I arrived in Albuquerque, and I had some trouble finding a hotel, even though I could see them from the highway. Once I exited, there were no signs pointing the way, and I quickly became disoriented in the dark, unknown city. This was an experience I repeated several times, and it seems that the cities might want to help out travelers and give them a bit of direction on where to go to places like that. But I finally found a Motel 8 which even had internet access, so I had my usual leftovers from lunch, checked my email, and hit the sack.
The next morning I had a tough choice: I could push on, or stay a day and see the International Balloon Fiesta, which I found out from the hotel clerk was starting the very next day! It was supposed to be an awesome sight, hundreds of giant hot-air balloons rising in waves at sunrise and again at sunset. I opted to drive to the fairgrounds and maybe decide then. But back and forth driving revealed only rows of RV's and campers on the fairgrounds. I guessed the balloonists wouldn't be arriving until early the next morning. Whatever the case, I found the urge to move on stronger than my desire to see all those balloons, so westward once again I went.

Next: Flagstaff, Best Friends Sanctuary, Salt Lake and Reno.... and wolves. See you there!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Go West, Young Man

I'm back in San Francisco after driving across the country for the past 10 days. I didn't go overboard and make marathon 12-hour drives; instead I stopped in cities and places I wanted to see, and occasionally made brief side trips to explore a bit.
It all started when I decided to take Dr. Bachman's offer of a job in his shelter/clinic near San Francisco. The Contra Costa animal shelter has two separate clinics in it, one public and one for the shelter animals, so there's lots to do there! But everything I own was in Virginia. I decided not to move everything all at once, which would mean having to tow my car behind a moving van. Instead, having gotten quite used to living out of a suitcase for the past year, I filled my car with the basic necessities I might need for a few months and took off. I didn't even have a place in San Fran to live yet, but knew I could rent a room-- people are always renting out. I can fly back later and get the rest when I decide where to settle down.
So off I went on a bright September morning. Route 81 goes all the way to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I made the drive easily, listening in on the different local radio stations, which included everything from country music to NPR (public radio), which was broadcast in a surprising number of remote places. And that's where I soon was, in remote southern Virginia, which is a world away from the suburbs of Washington D.C. where I grew up.
It was late by the time I reached Knoxville; there was nothing I wanted to see there anyway, having visited it a while back while volunteering for a RAVS (rural area veterinary service) weekend. I found a hotel off the highway and, still bleary with road daze, found my room and collapsed. But I was excited about the days to come.
This was about as far west as I had ever driven. I've always wanted to drive across America; I've even had vivid dreams about leaving and just heading west as far as I could go. It was finally going to become reality. I must admit I was a bit concerned that it would turn out to be a huge disappointment, especially after having just returned from a round-the-world tour. But I needn't have worried.
The next day I made Nashville by noon, and found the downtown historic center, the first place I always look for, having gotten into the habit in the old cities of Europe. I had been told that there wasn't much there. It seemed like a nice enough town, and might have been interesting seeing the main street in the evening when the bars and restaurants were in full swing, but I was more interested in Memphis which was still a half-day's drive away, so after a quick drive around town I opted not to stop for lunch, but instead push on.

Along the way on a whim I got off the highway and took a parallel road just to see a bit of rural Tennessee. I stopped to check on some dogs roaming in the street, but they quickly took off. It was there I noticed a beautiful spaniel in the yard next door, whose owner I had a nice chat with after being unable to resist petting the dog.

I got to Memphis by evening, and quickly got a hotel and, knowing next to nothing about the city, asked the clerk where to go. He gave me directions and I soon found Beale Street, the neon-lit equivalent of the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was touristy, tacky, completely gaudy, and I loved it.... at least for a few hours. The tourist district is ony about 3 blocks, but there's lots crammed into that little area. There was blues music blaring from every bar, beer stands which you could walk away with a drink from, and curio shops selling everything Elvis that the most die-hard fan could hope for. Even the horse-drawn carriages had neon lights.

I never made it to Graceland, but after hearing about it later I probably should have stopped by. Well, I had to make Oklahoma City the next day, so I'll just have to go back there some day.

Next: the midwest

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Final Thoughts

Well, it's over. The long, wandering trek around the world is finally completed.
People have asked me things like, "Was it worth it?" and "Where was your favorite place?"
To answer the first, I'd say absolutely. I wouldn't have missed it for...well, the world. I had a great time. Sure, there were setbacks and hardships at times, things like missed connections, noisy or stuffy hostel rooms, smokey restaurants, sunburns, baffling subway systems, unhelpful officials. But I accepted all that as part of the journey. If all had been easy and comfortable, it woulnd't have been the same. If every hotel room was nice, and every station attendant was smilingly helpful, it would have somehow been less of an adventure. The scary eastern European train stations at night will not soon be forgotten, nor the creepy beggars or the pushy Turkish carpet salesmen. (Hey, I just realized that I never saw a single female store clerk in all of Turkey. I suppose it's that Muslim taboo against women working certain jobs. Shame, I bet they'd sell more rugs if they let the ladies give it a try.)
Anyway, as I was saying, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Even all the waiting at the airports, train stations and ferry terminals (I caught up on my reading then) and the riding itself took up time as well. The longest train journey was from Romania to Bicester England, which took a day and a half, not counting the night's stop in a hotel in Cologne. But I had several good books, including my little sudoku book which accompanied me on the entire trip (I still have a few of the difficult ones to finish). The longest flight I had was Singapore to Istanbul, 13 hours. The flights were the easiest of all to pass time on: I just watched movies and the hours flew by. Sometimes I was almost disappointed when we over; there were always more movies than time to watch! The ferry trips were never very long and most ferries are now almost small cruise ships complete with restaurants and bars, video game rooms, shopping areas and sometimes even small movie theaters. I still prefer to pass the time up on deck, feeding the gulls and enjoying the views when not reading in the bright sunshine and col breezes.

So the traveling itself was quite nice, and the destinations were (usually) even better. What place did I like the best? I don't really have a favorite, I must admit. They all had their good and bad points. The Elephant Nature Park in Thailand was full of exciting chances to interact with the gentle giants, fantastic food and loads of wonderful people from across the globe to ejoy. But it was hot, humid, rather primitive and miles from anywhere. Almost exactly the opposite, Vienna, Austria is a stunning city of beauty and grace, yet my visit felt cold and lonely as I met not a single person with whom to really talk to.
Yet I would love to go back to both places. It's pretty much the same with everywhere I went-- some good, some not so good, yet all different and interesting. Well, maybe I saw enough of Bucharest to satisfy me, but most places had far too much to see for one visit. I feel almost like I was on a scouting trip, just stopping by for a quick look-see and then moving on. But I enjoyed it all: every museum, big and small, every grand old cathedral and quiet little church, each food market and cafe and pub, and everyone I met, from the wonderful folks who kindly took me in to their homes to the grumpy ticket agents who refused to speak english even if they knew it. They all added to the trip in their own ways. I thank them all.

Here's a few things I've learned while traveling:
- Remember to drink the water bottle before going through the security line at the airport.
- You can't see everything. Pace yourself; if it's that good, plan on coming back some day.
- Don't walk when you can ride-- you'll need that energy later.
- A quiet hotel room is a precious thing; one with air conditioning as well is a treasure beyond price.
- Don't settle in for the night without something to snack on. Especially on an overnight train. Once I went hungry all day because I figured I'd have plenty of time to lounge in the dining car that night, only to find out there was no dining car!
- ASK QUESTIONS. I cannot stress this enough. I jumped on a train which I thought was going my way. After not seeing my destination posted I asked a passenger just to confirm, and it turned out to be the wrong train. I barely made it out of the train in time.
- Even if you have a first-class ticket, try second-class sometimes. You meet more interesting people.
- If you have time, volunteer. The best times I had on the whole trip were when I was volunteering-- I met the best people, had fun with the animals, and got so many extra benefits I can't even list them all here. Trust me on this. Volunteering will change your position from just another tourist to a member of a special group of friends with local connections. It was the best decision I made!
- Never pass up a bathroom when you get the chance--especially a free one. Or a chance to recharge your laptop.
- PACK LIGHT. Then remove half of it. I thought I had packed light for an 8-month trip. I would have been fine with half as much.
Speaking of packing, some of you may have been wondering just how much I brought with me, and what kind of baggage I lugged around the world. I started out with the blue suitcase pictured (chosen because it has both wheels and backpack straps, which I never used) and the camo knapsack. I crammed them full of as much clothes as would fit, not knowing how cold or hot it might be where I was going. I had two pairs of jeans, two ultralight long pants, two shorts (one doubling as bathing suit) about six t-shirts, two sweatshirts (one regular, one polartec), a jacket that doubled as a raincoat, and a few nice shirts. This plus underwear, hat, umbrella, books, maps, travel documents, still and video cameras, toiletries and assorted knick-knacks that you collect when traveling made for quite a heavy load.
By design they were compatible and I could roll them together or carry them separately up stairs and onto trains, when necessary. But I soon found that I needed something else-- a day pack. When I'd reach a hotel and go out to sightsee, I needed something to carry my guidebook, water bottle, camera(s), wallet, passport, sunglasses and sometimes jacket and umbrella, and the knapsack was too big and full of luggage to empty and repack each time. So in New Zealand I kept my eyes open for an army surplus store, and upon finding one, quickly selected the little green bag that was perfect for my needs. It even held my little Fujitsu laptop which came in handy on trains, when I wanted to get it without digging into the knapsack. It took up hardly any room and could easily be carried along with the rest of the stuff. I also finally found a nifty little travel fan which I bought; I had had enough of hot, stuffy European hotel rooms with no air conditioning-- few of them even had a hotel I coud use. Being metal it was a bit heavy but I slept much better with it, so it was worth it.
I mention all the clothes I brought because I wanted to point out that, in spite of being all I had to last for 6 months, it was really too much! Yes, believe it or not, I had no need of half of it. Two pairs of jeans? So what if they were two different colors? I hardly wore the green ones, and who would have known the difference anyway? I was rarely with the same people more than three days. And even when I stayed longer, they understood that I was traveling and forgave me the style faux pas of being seen in the same pants the same week.
I think the reason why there are so many tourists struggling with so much luggage is mainly because people try to continue the dress codes abroad that they abide by at home with their closets full of garments. They cling to the silly belief that they must not be seen in the same articles twice in the same week. I spent three weeks in France and Spain with just the knapsack, and got along fine. I had a little bottle of laundry soap, and every other night did a bit of scrubbing in the sink, which was dry by morning. Not always perfect, I'll grant, but a lot better than pulling the extra weight around. (Of course, it helped knowing that I wouldn't need cold-weather clothes.)
Anyway, it was a mind-opening trip of a lifetime. I wouldn't travel for that long again; maybe 3 or 4 months at the most. More than that can just be too tiring. It's a lot of work, planning your next city, finding the right train, locating a hotel, walking around a new city. Day after day, week after week, no matter how exotic and interesting the locales, it wears you down. At my age, it's amazing I lasted that long.
I lost 10 pounds as well, which was part of the plan. I avoided rich desserts and gelatos, and kept to my vegetarian diet, not always easy in countries with meat-rich cuisines like Turkey and Hungaria. And I maintained my vegetarian diet, except for that one accidental ordering of Hungarian goulash in Budapest (I didn't realize it had meat in it). It wasn't always easy, like in Istanbul where there were several kebab places on every block; but I also discovered a world of new dishes and flavors that I never would have otherwise. And I'm kind of proud that I made it-- spouting on about animal welfare would sound kind of hollow if I turned around and ate them. It would be rather like a slaveholder claiming to be concerned with civil rights issues. Anyway, it's not hard now, it's just a way of life.
And I took over a thousand photos, so I'll always keep the memories fresh of the wanderjahr of 2008. Thanks for sharing it with me.
~Dave Bernazani September 2008