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Talking about Art is like Dancing about Architecture

Edward Goldman   |   September 17, 2013    7:40 PM ET

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Renowned performance artist, Laurie Anderson, famously said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Every time I go on the air with my Art Talk, I have a similar thought - that talking about ART is like dancing about architecture.

These days, it's so easy to go on the Internet and check out the KCRW website to see the artwork that I am talking about, but years ago when I started, that was definitely not the case. That's why I developed a policy where, instead of trying to describe an artwork, I would rather share with the listeners my thoughts and feelings about what I've seen.

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In an ideal world, I would like to take all of you with me to artists' studios to experience their works firsthand - to see, to touch, and even to smell their art. Or, to invite you all to go with me to museums to see great works of art - and not just pass them by, but to slow down and actually spend some time taking in the beauty of the ancient Greek vase, and "listening" to the voice of Rembrandt in his self portrait, or almost inhaling the dizzy energy of a Jackson Pollock painting.

This past Sunday, I was asked to be a speaker at TEDxVeniceBeach and I chose to talk about art and its importance in the lives of all of us. Most of the speakers had a PowerPoint presentation, but I opted to just talk about art without showing it.

I spoke about the uniqueness of our encounters with ancient or contemporary works of visual art, which we can experience firsthand, in real time and real space. It's different than other forms of art. With all due respect and love for, let's say, Mozart or Shakespeare, we inevitably experience their art performed, translated and interpreted through sensibilities of our time.

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I also shared a story about holding an ancient Greek vase in my hands when I was only 12 or 13 years old and trembling with excitement, feeling that the 2000+ years that separated us has disappeared. We all know perfectly well that touching artwork in a museum is a big NO-NO. But yours truly once committed this crime. While I was still working at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, a curator friend of mine called me on a Monday - the museum's day off - and asked if I could help her do something very special, though she mysteriously refused to explain what it was.

I rushed to the museum and met her at the galleries devoted to Italian Renaissance art. She pulled out a sharp knife with which she broke the seal at a display case containing the two arguably most famous Hermitage paintings - two small early paintings of Madonna with Child by Leonardo da Vinci. Each of them painted on a thin wood panel, each of them having the dimensions of a standard letter sized paper. My friend handed one of them to me and held the other Madonna herself. And then we proceeded to walk through dozens of museum rooms and descended into the conservation department where the Chief Conservator had to carefully examine the condition of the paintings to be sure that nothing had happened since the previous examination ten years prior.

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I still vividly remember this out of body experience of holding Leonardo and his Madonna in my hands - literally in my hands. No, I wasn't wearing white gloves. So, my right hand thumb lightly touched upon the blue robe of Madonna at the bottom corner of the painting but, thank God, lightning didn't strike me. After I finished my TED talk, I generously offered to let anyone interested come up and touch my thumb.

Somehow, the power and magic of art helped and guided me when I left Russia and came to this City of Angels. One of the kind souls that helped me in my first months suggested that I go to see his friend who knows a lot about art and lives in Venice. "Venice, Italy?" I asked. Isn't that a little far to travel for advice? "No, silly!" responded my friend. "It's right here in LA, near the beach." And lucky for me, this person turned out to be none other than Frank Gehry, years before he became a household name in the world of architecture.

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And one of the first LA artists whom I visited in her Venice studio was the amazing and ever-surprising Lita Albuquerque. She was pregnant with her first child and she allowed me to touch her belly, which in Russia is considered great luck.

So, thanks to Frank and Lita and hundreds of other amazingly talented and creative people in LA, I had an almost instantaneous, sort of chemical reaction to this amazing city, which makes me believe in the romantic notion of love at first sight.

Trying to compare Los Angeles to any other famous city is completely missing the point. I see this beautiful, exotic and slightly weird metropolis of ours as a "giraffe" of a city. I even dreamed once of being on a clogged freeway and instead of driving a car, I was riding a giraffe. How about that?

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In the last few decades, LA earned a reputation as one of the most important centers of contemporary art in the world. The largest concentration of the best American art schools is here in Southern California as well. A lot of young artists from the four corners of the world come here to study and work, while the number of major NY art dealers expanded their businesses by opening new galleries in LA. One of them, Perry Rubenstein, gave me this response to my question about why he chose to come to LA: "Let me tell you Edward. Los Angeles to New York today is what New York used to be to Paris in the 1950s." Wow. Just think about that. I don't know a better way to define the power and magic of LA's art scene for the whole world.


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Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.

WATCH: He Just Wants To Be Your Friend, Guys!

Jessica Leader   |   June 24, 2013    4:55 PM ET

Looks like someone is just a little too eager to make friends.

In the above video uploaded by YouTube user StreetSmartyy, tourists at a South African game park are being chased by a wild giraffe. Although you don't need to speak Afrikaans to be able to understand their terror (especially since they drop at least one English F-bomb), the giraffe seems to quickly lose interest in the group.

Even though this giraffe looks pretty darn adorable, the tourists had good reason to put the pedal to the metal. According to the San Diego Zoo, giraffes can run up to 35 miles per hour and have a mighty kick.

Has a wild animal ever gotten too close to your personal space? Let us know in the comments below!

WARNING: Slightly graphic language in the above video.

PHOTOS: This Is How A Baby Giraffe Sleeps

James Gerken   |   May 29, 2013   12:26 PM ET

Have you ever wondered how a giraffe sleeps?

The tallest living land animal doesn't sleep as long as other mammals, but they certainly find a weird way of getting comfortable.

One study from the University of Zurich found that giraffes also sleep standing up, and the peculiar sleep position seen below isn't that common. Adult giraffes, the researchers found, assume this position for less then five percent of the average 4.6 hours they sleep each day.

(Photos posted by user arbili.)

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) are classified as "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but two subspecies of giraffe are both classified as endangered. It has been estimated that there are fewer than 200 Rothschild's giraffes in the wild.

Habitat degradation, poaching and armed conflicts in East Africa are some of the biggest threats to giraffes, according to IUCN.

(H/t Neatorama)

Call of the Wild: 8 Offbeat Places to Connect with Nature

minube   |   May 15, 2013    8:38 AM ET

For years, travelers have flocked to the great national parks of Africa and North America to get a glimpse of the world's most incredible creatures in their natural element. More and more, however, travelers are parting from the beaten path and discovering interesting and bizarre corners of the world where they can come face-to-face with mother nature.

From ancient temples crawling with monkeys and rats to desolate beaches teeming with exotic wildlife, here are 10 unusual places to connect with nature, all recommended by real travelers and locals on minube.

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1.) Giraffe Manor, Kenya - Located in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, this colonial British hotel offers guests a most unusual roommate: live giraffes. While the rooms aren't cheap (they can be upwards of $500/night), they do offer a once in a lifetime chance to have brunch with one of your curious, long-necked neighbors. (Photo by Sonia Givray)


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2.) Hanauma Bay, O'ahu - Hanauma Bay is a protected marine park on the island of Big Island of Hawaii and offers an unspoilt reef teeming with turtles, fish, and reef sharks. Aside from snorkeling in the shallows, travelers can find local dive operators who'll let them feed sharks in the wild and take turns in a shark cage. (Photo by Pablo2Ore)


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3.) Jamaa el Fnaa, Morocco - Jamaa el-Fnaa is the main market in Marrakech and, as visitors can attest, is like entering an Indiana Jones movie. Travelers can find all manner of fruit and juice vendors, as well as fortune tellers, street dentists, monkey shows, and, of course, Morocco's legendary snake-charmers. (Photoby Leo Aparicio)


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4.) Galwar Bagh Monkey Temple, India - In the Indian State of Rajahsthan, the Galtaji Temple has been a destination for religious pilgrims for centuries. More recently, the temple has been drawing travelers thanks to its large tribe of rhesus macaques which have earned the site the nickname "Galwar Bagh" (Monkey Temple). (Photo by Clara Matias)


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5.) Punta Nifas, Argentina - Punta Ninfas (Nympth's Point) in central Argentina is a hotspot for adventurous nature lovers who are drawn there by the large colony of elephant seals. The seals also draw groups of killer whales, many of which are not shy about showing off for visitors. (Photo by Belen G. Bonorino)


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6.) Tiger Temple, Thailand - In western Thailand, travelers can visit a temple where for the past two decades Buddhist monks have reared Indochinese tigers. While Tiger Temple does let visitors interact with the large cats, it now works hand-in-hand with NGOs after receiving criticism from conservation and animal rights groups. (Photo by Albeto S. Dosantos)


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7.) Swayambhunath Temple, Nepal - Perched atop a steep hill in western Kathmandu, Swayambhunath Temple is one of Buddhism's most important holy sites and home to a playful tribe of monkeys. While the curious creatures are a draw for tourists, travelers shouldn't miss the incredible painted stupa and breath-taking views of the city. (Photo by Juanjo Fontanet)


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8.) Karni Mata Temple, India - The Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok, India is definitely not for the squeamish. The temple is populated by thousands of rats which are revered as holy by local devotees. White rats are considered especially sacred and it's considered good fortune to have one of the rodent run across your feet. (Photo by Alfredo Vidal)

The Most Epic Fight You'll See Today

Sara Gates   |   January 4, 2013   12:25 PM ET

In a sneak peek at its upcoming seven-part history series "Africa," Discovery revealed what's being billed as the "most violent giraffe fight ever filmed."

The clip from the "Kalahari" episode shows two male giraffes vying for territory in Namibia. The extraordinary giraffe fight, which lasts less than 90 seconds, took the film crew more than four weeks to capture, according to the BBC, which partnered with Discovery to produce the segment.

The documentary crew camped out along the Hoanib River in Namibia in order to film animals in their natural habitats. However, it wasn't until cameraman Martyn Colbeck and his associate got their "lucky break" and were able to capture a giraffe fight on film.

"Even though we were following the oestrous female and the consorting male, the fight came out of nowhere," Colbeck told the BBC, describing a female giraffe's state of sexual receptivity. "Suddenly the challenger came around the corner of a bend in the river and immediately challenged the dominant male in the most brutal way."

During the video, the two giraffes stand side-by-side and swing their 6-foot-long necks -- estimated to weigh around 500 pounds -- at each other.

"It's extremely rare to catch a giraffe fight on film," narrator Forest Whitaker says during the clip. "Most of the time they're gentle vegetarians. But to protect precious territory, they will fight."

While filmed giraffe fights are uncommon, they're not entirely out of the ordinary. In 2007, some lucky tourists stumbled upon a giraffe fight in Tanzania during a safari.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, a giraffe's kick can be powerful enough to kill a lion. Today, the "main threats to giraffes are habitat loss and poaching for meat and hides."

MONIKA SCISLOWSKA   |   October 8, 2012    3:37 PM ET

WARSAW, Poland -- Tofik, a male giraffe who won sympathy in Poland after he lost his two female companions in the wake of an attack by hoodlums near their zoo enclosure, has died during surgery for digestive problems, zoo officials said Monday.

The 5-year-old Rothschild giraffe died Sunday, said Magdalena Janiszewska, the head of the zoo in Lodz, some 75 miles (120 kilometers) west of Warsaw. His stomach condition is believed to not be related to the attack.

  |   October 4, 2012   12:34 PM ET

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah's Hogle Zoo has a new resident: a baby giraffe.

The zoo says the 6-foot bundle of leggy joy was born Sept. 23, and mom and baby girl are doing great. They spent the past week bonding and were displayed to the public in the giraffe yard for the first time Wednesday.

PHOTOS: Giraffe Overload!

James Gerken   |   August 19, 2012    4:23 PM ET

Native to Africa, giraffes are the tallest land animals in the world. While they number over 100,000 individuals in the wild and, as a species, are listed as "least concern" by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, several subspecies are presently endangered.

According to IUCN, both the Niger giraffe and Rothschild’s giraffe subspecies are endangered. There may be fewer than 2,500 mature Rothschild’s giraffes in the wild and "numbers are declining overall and no subpopulation is estimated to contain more than 250 mature individuals," explains IUCN. The Niger giraffe suffers a worse fate with "less than 200 individuals" in existence, but IUCN notes the population is "currently increasing under targeted conservation programmes."

Officials at a zoo in Poland recently announced that a male giraffe that was widowed after stress from a hooligan break-in killed his two companions will receive new friends. 5-year-old Rothchild giraffe Tofik will reportedly receive three female companions. According to AP, "after the attack Tofik lost weight, ate little and reacted with panic to any disturbance, but has recovered and is ready for company."

If you wish you could befriend a giraffe, check out this tourist's reaction to a wet giraffe kiss.

Fore more giraffe news, read about the baby giraffes born in July at a Colorado zoo and in March at New York City's Bronx Zoo.

Below, check out some of our favorite photos of giraffes:

  |   August 10, 2012   10:19 AM ET

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A young male giraffe widowed following a hooligan attack in May is set to get three new female partners at his zoo.

The females will arrive next week from two other Polish zoos and one in Leipzig, Germany, Wlodzimierz Stanislawski, the head of the breeding section at the zoo in Lodz, central Poland, said Friday.

Leipzig zoo is sending 2-year-old Lira and Warsaw zoo 2-year-old Lokatka. The 9-year-old Judita is to come from Plock, in central Poland.

They will fill the void that the 5-year-old Rothschild giraffe Tofik suffered after the death of two companions. Both died of stress following an attack by unidentified vandals who overturned signs and threw benches and garbage cans into animal runs in the nearest neighborhood of the enclosure of the naturally skittish giraffes.

In the weeks after the attacks, Stanislawski said, Tofik lost weight, ate little and reacted with panic to any disturbance. But the giraffe has recovered and is ready for company now, the official said.

Rothschild giraffes are rare and protected subspecies, and the zoo employees hope Tofik and his new companions will mate and produce offspring.

MONIKA SCISLOWSKA   |   May 15, 2012   11:09 AM ET

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Two female giraffes at a zoo in central Poland died after vandals broke into the facility, and officials are trying to find a companion for their last remaining giraffe — a male.

The break-in at the zoo in Lodz city occurred Saturday night, and the unidentified hooligans overturned signs and threw benches and garbage cans into animal runs, including one near where the three giraffes were.

One of the female giraffes — 3-year-old Suri — was found dead early Sunday, and tests indicated it died of stress and a heart attack, zoo Director Ryszard Topola said Tuesday.

The other female giraffe, 6-year-old Hana, was found dead early Monday, and Topola said the sudden stress worsened its ongoing treatment for parasites.

"These are wild animals and very skittish," said Topola, so there is little doubt that the fear contributed to their deaths.

The two females and the surviving 6-year-old male — Tofik — are from the endangered Rothschild giraffe subspecies, and the zoo's goal had been for them to be companions for years and hopefully mate and produce other giraffes.

"This is a very sad occurrence to us, a great loss," Topola said.

The head of the zoo's breeding section, Wlodzimierz Stanislawski, said management is checking with other European zoos to see they can provide a companion for Tofik.

"It is a tough task because there are not many available female Rothschild giraffes in zoos, but we will try to fill in this sudden gap," Stanislawski said.

Meanwhile, city authorities and the national Animal Guard watchdog organization have offered a 5,000 zlotys ($1,500; euro 1,100) reward for any clues that help find the hooligans.

Investigators also are trying to find out why the zoo's security guards didn't call police until hours after the hooligans had left the facility, which is not equipped with CCTV cameras.

By ANDY BROWNFIELD   |   October 19, 2011    8:24 AM ET

ZANESVILLE, Ohio (AP) -- Officers armed with assault rifles patrolled Zanesville Wednesday morning, a day after police killed dozens of animals that escaped from a wild-animal preserve, and where the owner's body later was found.

Warning that more animals still were on the loose, officials expected up to four school districts to cancel classes as the remaining bears, big cats and other beasts from the Muskingum County Animal Farm were hunted down.

Close to 30 of the 48 animals were shot and killed on Tuesday. Officials were pondering how to dispose of the remains.

"These are wild animals that you would see on TV in Africa," Sheriff Matt Lutz said at a press conference. He told residents to stay indoors and sent updates to them via Twitter. There were no reports of injuries to the public.

The fences had been left unsecured at the animal farm in east-central Ohio, and the animals' cages were open, police said.

The preserve had lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, giraffes, camels and bears. Police said bears and wolves were among the escaped animals that were killed and there were multiple sightings of exotic animals along a nearby highway.

Lutz called the animals "mature, very big, aggressive" but said a caretaker told authorities the animals had been fed on Monday.

Tuesday night, more than 50 law enforcement officials -- including sheriff's deputies, highway patrol officers, police officers and officers from the state Division of Wildlife -- patrolled the 40-acre farm and the surrounding areas in cars and trucks, often in rainy downpours. Lutz said they were concerned about big cats and bears hiding in the dark and in trees.

Neighbor Danielle White, whose father's property abuts the animal preserve, said she didn't see loose animals this time but did in 2006, when a lion escaped.

"It's always been a fear of mine knowing (the preserve's owner) had all those animals," she said. "I have kids. I've heard a male lion roar all night."

"This is a bad situation," Lutz said. "It's been a situation for a long time."

Lutz said his office started getting phone calls at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that wild animals were loose just west of Zanesville on a road that runs under Interstate 70.

He said four deputies with assault rifles in a pickup truck went to the animal farm, where they found the owner, Terry Thompson, dead and all the animal cage doors open. He wouldn't say how Thompson died but said several aggressive animals were near his body when deputies arrived and had to be shot.

Thompson, who lived on the property, had orangutans and chimps in his home, but those were still in their cages, Lutz said.

The deputies, who saw many other animals standing outside their cages and others that had escaped past the fencing surrounding the property, began shooting them on sight.

Staffers from the Columbus Zoo went to the scene, hoping to tranquilize and capture the animals.

Lutz said his main concern was protecting the public in the rural area, where homes sit on large lots of sometimes 10 acres.

White, the preserve's neighbor, said Thompson had been in legal trouble, and police said he had gotten out of jail recently.

"He was in hot water because of the animals, because of permits, and (the animals) escaping all the time," White said. A few weeks ago, she said, she had to avoid some camels which were grazing on the side of a freeway.

At a nearby Moose Lodge, Bill Weiser remembered Thompson as an interesting character who flew planes, raced boats and owned a custom motorcycle shop that also sold guns.

"He was pretty unique," Weiser said. "He had a different slant on things. I never knew him to hurt anybody, and he took good care of the animals."

Weiser said he regretted that the escaped animals had to be killed. "It's breaking my heart, them shooting those animals," he said.

Bailey Hartman, 20, a night manager at McDonald, also said it saddened her that the animals were being shot. But, she said, "I was kind of scared coming in to work."

Hartman said Thompson's wife, who no longer lives with him, was her teacher in middle school and used to bring small animals such as a monkeys, snakes and owls to school. "It was a once-a-year type of thing, and everyone would always get excited," she recalled.

Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.

In the summer of 2010, an animal caretaker was killed by a bear at a property in Cleveland. The caretaker had opened the bear's cage at exotic-animal keeper Sam Mazzola's property for a routine feeding.

Though animal-welfare activists had wanted Mazzola charged with reckless homicide, the caretaker's death was ruled a workplace accident. The bear was later destroyed.

This summer, Mazzola was found dead on a water bed, wearing a mask and with his arms and legs restrained, at his home in Columbia Township, about 15 miles southwest of Cleveland.

It was unclear how many animals remained on the property when he died, but he had said in a bankruptcy filing in May 2010 that he owned four tigers, a lion, eight bears and 12 wolves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had revoked his license to exhibit animals after animal-welfare activists campaigned for him to stop letting people wrestle with another one of his bears.

Mazzola had permits for nine bears for 2010, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said. The state requires permits for bears but doesn't regulate the ownership of nonnative animals, such as lions and tigers.

Astoria Characters: The Wild Things' Foster Mom

Nancy Ruhling   |   June 28, 2011   11:32 AM ET

"Where's the baby? She has to be here somewhere."

Donna Bungo knows this because when she packed the insulated cooler this morning, there were four. And now there are only three. There's no way one escaped, at least she doesn't think so. Casually alarmed, she carefully culls the covers, her old flannel pajamas, until she comes up with the critter.

She playfully scolds her five-week-old charges and cuddles the sleepy-eyed squirrel who almost beat her at hide-and-seek. It's not easy being a foster mother; Donna's been bottle-feeding this brood since they were two-week-old butt-ugly baldies half the size of butter sticks.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Donna cuddles one of her babies.

"They were as cold and wet as ice cubes," says Donna, a velvet tank with Sinatra-blue eyes whose fox-red hair is pulled back so it trails down her back like a long tail. "I wasn't sure they were going to make it."

She takes a baby bottle out of the cooler, and the little squirt of a squirrel chug-a-lugs it as if it's a chocolate milkshake. It's a mixture of powdered Esbilac Puppy Replacer Milk spiked with heavy cream and avian vitamin supplements. (More photos.)

These little guys were born in an attic nest; the homeowner's cat treed their mother, and Donna was called upon to step into the breach.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Donna's hand-held bottle does the trick.

Donna, a New York State licensed wildlife rehabilitator, has been coming to the rescue of animals ever since she was a kid growing up outside of Cleveland.

"There was a pond nearby, and I used to bring home a pickle jar filled with pollywogs," she says. "And for 23 years, I had a raccoon."

Through the years, she's taken in a lot of animals; right now, the squirrels are the only rescues in her family. The quartet of turtles that are the size of dinner plates, the half dozen guinea pigs (who knew the mother was with children?) and the Australian bearded dragon named Steve who lives in a mesh enclosure are pets that's she's farmed out to friends who have sympathetic landlords.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Donna has always loved outdoor life and wildlife.

"When people hear I rescue wild animals, they freak out at the word wildlife, sometimes imagining I have tigers living in the closets," she says. "I might -- I just haven't found them yet!"

Donna's rescue work has led her to all kinds of harrowing adventures. There was the time long ago when she was called upon to pluck a raccoon out of a Rego Park back yard; as she was carrying the calm critter in her arms -- she was outfitted in elbow-length suede welder's gloves lined with Kelvar -- something spooked the coon. It bit her in the jaw, and she ended up in the emergency room.

"Raccoons don't pull when they bite," she says matter-of-factly. "They only puncture."

Donna not only protects animals, but she also protects people and property. She's been in security management for three decades, a vocation she took up shortly after college when she was rejected by the good sisters of St. Francis in Tiffin, Ohio.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
When rescuing critters, Donna wears welder's gloves.

"I felt the calling to religious life," she says. "I lived in the convent for two years, but I was not allowed to take my vows. The nuns told me I was too independent. On the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test they made me take, I scored high on homosexuality; I'd known since I was four or five that I was gay, but I hadn't come out to myself at that time."

Stunned by the sisters' decision, Donna eventually took a job as the manager of a cable company warehouse. "I moved back home with my mother," she says. "I worked the forklift in an 8,000-square-foot-warehouse that didn't have heat or a bathroom at a time when women weren't doing these kinds of jobs. Then, when the warehouse was closing, the company gave me a job installing cable. I fell off telephone poles four times and was laid off when I sprained my back."

After she recovered, Donna set about reinventing herself. She trained at a private police academy and got a job as an armed security guard. Eventually, she worked up her way up to a supervisory position.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Donna rides with the Sirens.


By this time, her life partner developed Lou Gehrig's disease, and her mother and sister also became ill. Donna took care of all of them until they passed away.

"I met my current partner online," she says. "I had just gotten a motorcycle -- a 1999 Yamaha V Star 650 in forest green and pearl -- and I drove it from Ohio to New York to be with her. We're still together."

When Donna's not taking care of her animals, she takes to the road with the Sirens, a group of female bikers who lead Manhattan's Gay Pride Parade. "I feel exhilarated when I'm on the open road," she says.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The wind in her hair makes Donna feel free.

She's been sidelined a couple of times for off-bike injuries; earlier this year, she fell and injured her shoulder. "I feel like Humpty Dumpty," she says. "I keep falling off the wall, and the doctor keeps putting me back together again."

The animals have been a great comfort to her. "I've seen elephants cry and cats do heart massage to try to revive their owners, and I've touched wild bears," she says. "The times I feel least human are when I don't have contact with animals. They help me discover things about myself that I didn't know."

And what she doesn't know right now is what she'll be doing in the future. Recently, she was laid off from her job as security manager at Channel Thirteen.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Donna started riding a motorcycle more than a decade ago.

"I'd love to work with larger wildlife at a zoo or establish a wildlife center," she says, adding that her idol is primatologist Jane Goodall, whom she met a couple of years ago. "I could see myself with elephants, rhinos, chimps, gorillas, giraffes and hippos. I'd love to bond with a big cat."

But right now, it is the squirrels who are most on her mind. When she first took them in, she fed them every few hours with eyedroppers, and she was on "mom duty" 24/7.

Now, her babies are crying softly in the cooler; soon, Donna says, they will start screeching.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Donna revels in her role as nature's foster mother.

So she tucks them in and zips them up in their cooler nest. She'll only have them seven more weeks. Then, Donna will take them to what she calls "squirrel camp," where they will be in the wild on their own.

If it saddens her, Donna doesn't let on. She carries them to the van -- she chose the cooler because it fits in the console space between the front seats.

For now, the squirrels are going to the only real home they've ever known -- hers.


Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2011 by Nancy A. Ruhling

What Foreigners Can Learn at the Shanghai Zoo

Tom Doctoroff   |   May 6, 2011    9:38 AM ET

After thirteen years on the mainland, I have learned there are two types of expatriates: "China friendly" and "China unfriendly." One is either drawn to the country's warmth and ambition or repulsed by shoddiness and lack of civility. If you're in the latter camp, get back on the plane; the Chinese have a spider sense for arrogance. If they sense contempt, they discreetly go for the jugular. If a laowei is a "friend of China," arms open.

There is no greater testing ground of an ability to navigate the Chinese landscape than the Shanghai zoo on a public holiday. On Labor Day, I ambled through its front gate. Besieged by crowds that would put a DeMillian spectacle to shame, I embraced my inner Tao and went with the flow. Six hours later, I stumbled out of the Great Ape House, oddly invigorated.

Unlike the Beijing Olympics or other events conceived to gain international face, a day at the zoo is strictly local. Signage is (mostly) in Chinese. I counted three Caucasian families. The zoo is apolitical. There were no fuddy-duddy red banners exhorting "harmony." Far from judgmental eyes, the Chinese let their hair down. With no dignity at risk, they are irrepressibly themselves, free to both shock and awe.

On the shock front, the crush of humanity induces anxiety. Competition for nose-against-the-glass views of popular exhibits -- fish, auspicious symbols of prosperity, are big draws -- is, um, aggressive. The concept of personal space, let alone respect for toes, does not exist. Jostles, pushes and pokes tests patience. Parents allow children to relieve themselves on public lawns.

Furthermore, the whiff of bureaucratic corruption is everywhere. Kick-back-fueled renovation bids result in third-rate "upgrades" on everything from panda cages to peacock gardens. Bumper car and Ferris wheel rides can charitably be described as "creaky." (Lines for these attractions were short.) Peeling paint, weed-infested gardens, cheap signage and scum-filled alligator ponds are evidence of a brittle bureaucracy that prizes check lists and cute-rate construction, not quality or service. China's dynamic market economy was nowhere to be seen; every concession stand sells corn on the cob, sausages on a stick and low-end ice cream. Souvenir stands hawk flimsy inflatable giraffes. Nothing else.

But what a buzz!

Who's at the zoo? The masses. With nary an international fashion brand in sight, the tumult was fun. Bickering was loud but people were happy. The stare of strangers, intimidating on Huaihai Boulevard or in the boardroom, elicited curiosity. Families -- from infants to their grandparents -- loved being together. They were open-hearted, joyful, proud to pose for photos, even when approached by a middle-aged American speaking middling Mandarin. Unrestrained laughter pierced the air. Both children and adults cackled when kangaroos hopped or bonobos swung. Boyfriends and girlfriends walked in arm and arm and wore matching "his and her" tee shirts.

The country's "family values," a unifying force as China hurtles towards modernization, were on display. Fathers doted, lifting their single child onto shoulders with a combination of king-of-the-jungle pride and papa-bear affection. Surrounded by fellow hoi polloi, China's preoccupation with "face" disappeared. Educational zeal was also in the air. Five-year-olds were quizzed on the difference between orangutans and gorillas; every exhibit boasted placards overflowing with "fun facts." (America's "creationist" brigade would have blanched at China's epistemological directness; on a kid-friendly diagram of "Man's family tree," a human baby was plopped within kissing distance of a chimp.) Parents encouraged their kids' embrace of the new.

True, Shanghai's facilities pale in comparison to institutions such as Singapore's Night Safari or even the Detroit zoo. Animal conditions have a long way to go. (Even in the morning, large mammals slept.) However, progress has been made, particularly if success is judged against an "international standards" checklist. Animal exchanges occur between Shanghai and foreign "sister cities." Cages have been replaced with (scraggly) natural habitats. Viewing areas have been enlarged. Walking paths have been broadened. Gardens, admittedly not Edenic, have been landscaped. Trash receptacles are everywhere. Bathrooms, recently primeval, are cleaner and friendlier to the handicapped.

There are two Chinas, one falling and one rising. At the zoo, both are on display. Pessimists will shake their heads at stultifying bureaucracy, robotic service and boorish civility. Optimists are reassured by the unquantifiable: relentless energy, a broad-based "urge to surge" underpinned by a thirst for knowledge and cohesion of the clan.

I know which camp I am in. Given my decision to spend the past thirteen years of my life in China, thank goodness for that.

Back to the Nineties With Newt

Lincoln Mitchell   |   March 1, 2011    8:57 PM ET

Before there was Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Scott Walker or any of the other current radical conservatives seeking the national spotlight and perhaps the Republican nomination for president, there was Newt Gingrich. The recent boomlet around a potential presidential bid by the aging right wing revolutionary feels like a strange hybrid of the unique quirkiness that has always been part of Gingrich with nostalgia for the 1990s. Next thing you know, we'll be talking about impeaching a Democratic president and shutting down the government. Maybe the 1990s really are back.

Ironically, in the mid-1990s, when Gingrich was at the height of his power after engineering a Republican takeover of the House or Representatives for the first time in four decades, the idea of a Gingrich presidency was implausible. He was too radical, too conservative and even a little too quirky to be a serious candidate for the White House. In 1996, the one presidential campaign between the time he became speaker and the time his political career ended, although only temporarily, in scandal, Gingrich's name was not even seriously floated for his party's nomination for president.

As the 2012 election approaches, however, Gingrich is potentially a major candidate for his party's nomination for president. Whether or not he gets the nomination, Gingrich could play an interesting, and possibly important, role in the nominating process. Although he was an important figure in the party more than 20 years ago, well before people like Bachmann, Palin, Boehner, Mike Huckabee or others were important in the party, Gingrich lacks the stature and temperament to be a true elder statesman. He is more like the quirky uncle who moved back to town and now finds himself at your house a few nights a week for dinner where he holds forth with long, occasionally interesting and often bizarre speeches about how the world works. Accordingly, Gingrich's candidacy will likely generate the most notable, and not infrequently, strange ideas of the upcoming election season.

Gingrich despite being a right wing extremist, was extremely influential, bold and successful politician, driven by new ideas and a willingness to take risks. The 1994 Republican campaign for congress was a radical departure from most previous congressional races. Gingrich persuaded his party that rather than run in hundreds of different local races, they should nationalize the campaign and make it a referendum on the Democratic congressional leadership who voters were beginning to see as having been around too long. Gingrich's Contract with America encapsulated this sentiment creating a single platform around which all Republicans could rally. Before 1994, congressional races were rarely national in nature, but since Gingrich's Republicans took over in 1994, they have almost all been.

Gingrich was not just innovative with regards to political strategy, but seemed constantly obsessed with the next great idea drawing inspiration from disparate sources including futurologist Alvin Toffler, giraffes and dinosaurs. Gingrich was, and remains, a man interested in big ideas. He is not, however, a man enamored of rigorous methodology or research. Rather he seems to like to riff off of whatever interesting idea serves his purpose.

In this regard, Gingrich is better suited to today's political environment where voters and politicians get their information from partisan, narrowly focused and often inaccurate web sites, or other sources. Gingrich's autodidactism complete with its faith in off-beat theories and wacky ideas, regardless of their source, fits far better in this decade than it did in the 1990s. In the age of the internet everybody can be an autodidact and believe anything they want. If you believe the President is not a U.S. citizen or that some secret cabal runs the country, it is not hard to find websites and other sources that support this opinion and strikingly easy to find major media outlets who are willing to a platform for you to discuss it.

Gingrich is not exactly a birther, but he has a weakness for precisely those kinds of theories that thrive in the internet age. His obsession a few months ago with what he saw as President Obama's Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview is a good example of this. A somewhat interesting idea caught Gingrich's attention and he ran with it. The earnest academics and others who sought to point out that this idea was nonsensical and not grounded in any rigorous thought whatsoever, could not keep up with Gingrich's energy and audacity, so the idea got more attention than it should have.

Gingrich's chance to become president, to some extent, rests upon finding a potent if offbeat idea through which he can capture the imagination of his party's base. If he succeeds in doing this he will be a formidable candidate, far more formidable than he could have been in the 1990s. Hucksterism has long been a part of politics, but Gingrich's style of hucksterism is uniquely well suited to the internet age. It remains to be seen how far it will take him.

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