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An Unlikely Pair

Boo and Ade sit next to the fence with their backs facing the house. They sit side-by-side like mirror images, ears up, shoulders straight, resting on their bums. They are an unlikely pair. Boo is a fifteen-year-old black cat and Adriana is a five-year-old white dog. Together, they smash every stereotype and cliché I’ve ever heard about the rocky relationship between cats and dogs. They’re watching something through the chainlink fence, something I can’t see. But I trust it’s there, and I trust they’ll kill it.

I also trust in the evening when I go to the basement, I’ll find their trophy. Over the past few weeks, they’ve left me lizards, mice, moles, birds, and chipmunks. They leave these dead things as presents, right in front of the stairs so that I can’t possibly miss them. Occasionally, they give me organs or limbs, such as a furry tail or a liver, perfectly intact but grotesquely separated from its owner. I always feel so conflicted. Deep down inside I am touched because I know this is their version of a thank you card, yet at the same time I have to choke back gags.

Boo and Adriana weren’t always so close. During Ade’s first four years, Boo didn’t waste his time on her. For one thing, their personalities were vastly different. Boo is the epitome of cool; he’s black and sleek with ultra-smooth mannerisms. On the other hand, until about six months ago, Adriana still acted like a perpetual goofball who ransacked rooms within minutes and didn’t understand personal space. She’s matured a lot recently, and he noticed.

Boo’s brothers were another reason he wasn’t always close with Adriana. Last spring, three black cats lived at the Farnival. They were inseparable, but now, Boo is the only one left. Goo died of old age in early summer, and Fuzz simply disappeared during autumn, when the leaves were just starting to fall from the trees. The last time I saw Fuzz he was in a forest drenched in yellow. For a long time, I hoped he’d return, even had dreams of him showing up at the tree line as quietly as he left. Eventually, I had to let go.

It took Boo two weeks to let go of Fuzz. I’ve never seen an animal so clearly grieve for another before. We’ve lost several elder pack members over the years, but the remaining dogs always acted with more curiosity than sadness. Even when Goo died, Boo seemed to confront it with the same grace as most animals confront death. He simply moved on. But when Fuzz disappeared, he acted completely different.

Through my office window, I’d watch his thin silhouette jog to the bottom of the yard. Then he’d spend thirty minutes pacing back and forth across our fenced half-acre, calling and calling for Fuzz. Boo cried several times a day for fourteen days straight. His grief broke my heart, and we considered…considered adopting another cat. But then, Boo discovered Adriana, and he stopped crying for a brother who never showed up.

I first noticed Boo and Ade’s blossoming relationship when I caught them napping on the same dog bed. In the beginning, they acted tentative towards each other and occupied opposite ends. Boo mostly pretended like Ade didn’t exist, while Ade glanced sideways every few seconds, as though any minute he might break out his razor-sharp claws. It’s happened before. The dogs have scars to prove it. But as they began to trust each other, they moved from opposing ends to the center.

Now, Boo naps sprawled over Adriana’s ribcage or crawled into a noodle against her stomach. Now, he allows her to clean his ears, and Ade lets him nuzzle her snout. On occasion, when they nap, some sound startles Adriana. She’ll jump up and send Boo flying in the air. He lands with grace and an indignant meow. But on cold winter days or rainy spring afternoons, they sleep next to each other for hours.

At some point, Boo started looking for Adriana during the middle of the night. A few nights a week, after his midnight haunts, he creeps through the doggie door, then pitter-patters down the hallway. In the bedroom doorway, he meows for Adriana. I don’t know how she answers, because she’s under the covers and doesn’t make a sound. But, when he determines she’s there, he tunnels underneath the sheets until he finds her. Ade spends a few minutes sniffing him, and he spends another minute cleaning her fur. Then, they settle around each other in a shape that reminds me of the traditional yin-yang symbol, white spooned against black. We all sleep cocooned together until dawn.

Ade outweighs Boo by thirty pounds, but in their hunting poses at the edge of the spring-bright grass, he looks like her shadow. I realized their relationship had reached next-level status when I first saw them hunting together, a recent but now frequent activity. It’s, by far, the most conclusive evidence that they’ve moved beyond sharing body heat, beyond coexisting in the same space. Now, they are choosing to spend time with each other outside of the house. Despite all their differences and all the stereotypes, these two animals are friends.

Is Ade becoming more cat or is Boo becoming more dog? If I had to guess it’d be the former. Ade is as insecure as he is confident. Besides, she’s probably in awe of his athletic efficiency, especially at killing things. And he must, in his own aloof feline way, be proud of her patience and size. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, their relationship is on equal ground, maybe they accept each other because of their differences.

That evening I walk down the basement steps and in the center of the landing is a frog without a leg, a thank you card from an unlikely pair.

Four Ways to Help Cuban Dogs

Yesterday I posted a story about the dog overpopulation problem in Cuba. Click here to read it. It’s not easy to read about suffering dogs. Believe me, it wasn’t easy to write about them either. It took me over a month to finish that post, and there were times I almost gave up because I just wanted to forget about the Alamar dog and the Muraleando puppy. Yet, I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t see them. If we don’t see the problem, then who will? The good news is that there are practical ways we can all help Cuban dogs. I’ve listed four below.

1. Spread the Word

I normally spot one to two strays a month in Robertson County. I saw 40 dogs in one week in Havana. At some point during my trip, I asked our tour guide Norberto about all the strays. Without twitching an eyebrow, he told me that Cuba doesn’t have an animal overpopulation problem. At a different time, he also said there aren’t any slums in Cuba. I gathered that our definitions of animal overpopulation and slums are different, or he wasn’t allowed to tell me about his island’s problems. Knowledge is the only way to counter this type of propaganda. Words can be powerful tools. Dogs can’t tell their stories, so it’s up to us to spread the word.

2. Support Cuban animal welfare Organizations

Here are three boots-on-the-ground, reputable organizations:

All People for Animals in Cuba (APAC)

TAP Animal Project

Cubans in Defense of Animals (CEDA)

All of these organizations have wish lists, and if you can afford to donate money, then fantastic. But, you can also support them for free through social media. As we all know, social media has an incredible amount of influence these days, so follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and IG. It’s such a little thing, but it means so much.

3. Volunteer

Did I mention how good the mojitos are?

There are numerous restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, but volunteer work is one of the reasons we are allowed to go. So, if you are up for an adventure, desire a fantastic mojito, and want to make a difference in a place that desperately needs our help, then volunteer at an animal welfare organization in Cuba. I advise checking out Aniplant. Nora Garcia is a total badass who has been saving Cuban dogs for almost 30 years.

4. Bring Supplies

If you are going to Cuba, or know anyone who is traveling there, leave room in your suitcase for animal supplies. Cuban rescue organizations need everything from gauze to blankets, but they really need flea and tick preventative. Before I left, I had been advised that if immigration asks about the 30 doses of Frontline I stuffed in my suitcase, tell them they are gifts not donations. Luckily, I wasn’t even questioned. In fact, the process was so easy I regretted not bringing more. But, to be on the safe side, do your research before you leave, and remember it can all be confiscated.

Giving a Voice to the Dogs of Cuba

(One of the lucky dogs living in Cuba)

(A stray in the Alamar suburb)

When my mother-in-law asked if I wanted to go to Cuba with her, I said why not? The Castro mystique, the old cars, and the architecture vaguely interested me. Visiting a communist society also intrigued me, but these were all ambiguous ideas floating around my mind. The only clear reason I could articulate for wanting to visit Cuba was the dogs.

I’ve been researching animal abuse and overpopulation in developing countries for years, but imagining and seeing are two different beasts. I wanted to see how a third-world economy affects dogs through the lens of my own experiences rescuing them in the rural south. That’s hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t understand the depth of an animal’s personality. After all, I knew what I was in for, right? In late February, I traveled to Havana for seven days with Kentucky Wesleyan College on an educational trip focusing on culture and art.

Convento de Belén

I saw my first Cuban dog on my first morning in Old Havana. I was standing on a cobblestone sidewalk outside the Convento de Belén, a center for the elderly, children, and the mentally ill. The government had restored the former church to its original beauty, painting it a pastel yellow, but if anything, the clean color made it stick out in stark contrast to its surroundings.

The buildings circling it were dilapidated, so dilapidated that gaping holes cut through walls and left nothing but exposed steel rebar and rubble. Windows were boarded shut or barred. I questioned how anyone could possibly live there, but they did. Laundry dried and swayed like colorful national flags on the third or fourth floor of these once elegant Spanish-style homes.

A dozen elderly women exercised in front of the center. The dog scooted past them without even pausing. He weaved around potholes, street vendors, and children dressed in school uniforms. The dog was white with brown spots, so it was easy to see his bright red collar and ID tag. His confidence and swagger were also easy to read.

When I asked Norberto, our translator and tour guide, about the dog, he explained the animal was part of a community program that adopts strays. During the day, the dogs roam the streets of Old Havana. At night, they guard museums and other important government buildings. Dog food doesn’t exist in Cuba, so local restaurants and cafes donate their scraps.

For the rest of that morning, I thought about Old Havana’s rescue program and hoped that everything I’d read was an exaggeration. Maybe there weren’t a lot of strays in Cuba. Maybe there weren’t an abundance of starving dogs. But, by day two, all my hopes were doused. I quickly realized the mutt with the red ID tag was a lot like the elderly center, one gleaming ray in a country overrun with poverty.

Cuba’s economic problems began before Castro’s revolution and the Bay of Pigs, but things really got bad when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Cuba lost 80% of their imports virtually overnight. Cubans call this time the “Special Period,” and thirty years later they are still recovering.

This recovery added to a strict US embargo means Cubans don’t have access to resources we can buy anywhere. For people, it means medications, toilet paper, toilet seats, towels, sheets, and soap are luxuries not necessities. For dogs, it means no dog food, flea medication, heartworm preventative, medicated shampoo, or antibiotics.

Organopónico Vivero Alamar

Two days after visiting the elderly center, our group headed to Organopónico Vivero Alamar, an organic farming collective. The farm spreads for a small but efficient 22 acres inside the suburb of Alamar. It’s an immaculate, organized space with rows of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and medicinal herbs. I saw horses hauling wagons and farmhands cutting sugarcane or milling around thatched-roof huts. It was an idyllic scene, but like the Convento de Belén, the telltale signs of hardship surrounded it. Right outside the farm’s gate, trash lined the streets like some sort of apocalyptic wildflower, and Soviet-style apartments, gray and peeling, loomed above. 

As my group started loading the bus, I lagged behind. Out of nowhere, as though she had been there all along, an emaciated dog appeared. She was maybe one year, but it was hard to tell. The dog was so thin that her ribcage and spine stuck out like a mountain range. She had a severe case of mange that left her bald and scabby. I peered around, amazed such a pathetic animal could simply appear without warning, and realized the Americans were the only people reacting.

The farmhands continued working without pausing. They acted as though they were accustomed to such sick dogs. I asked a woman who spoke a little English about the animal.

“We give food,” the lady said, then shrugged her shoulders.

It wasn’t a cruel shrug. It was a helpless shrug. It’s not that Cubans don’t want to help the dogs, it’s that they can’t. Their average salary is 30.00 a month. Even if the people could afford medical care, vets often can’t get the products needed to treat mange. It was the first but not the last time I got that same empathetic but helpless shrug.

For all her sickliness, the dog wasn’t afraid of humans. She approached us with hope, as though she might get a few morsels. At the exact time when my heart was about to explode, one of the college students in our group ended up on the dirt, shaking, pasty white, and throwing up. She had heat exhaustion. The dog disappeared in the confusion.

During the next few days, I sat on our bus, as we were whisked from one model social or art project to another, and tried not to think about that dog. I relied on a skill I had used when I fostered for ICHBA. Back then, I learned how to harden my heart, how to numb my emotions. If I couldn’t mentally accomplish that one essential act, then I could have ended up like so many others who help animals. They take care of so many that they can’t properly care for one. As of today, if my husband and I had kept every animal we’ve rescued in Robertson County, we’d have 50 dogs and a dozen cats living in our home.

The sheer number of dogs running loose in Havana also helped dull the Alamar mutt’s memory. Ninety-nine percent of the animals I saw weren’t leashed, so it was impossible to guess whether they had homes or not. The majority were bony, too thin. On average, I see one to two strays a month in Robertson County. In Cuba, I saw 40 dogs in one week.

Proyecto Muraleando

On one of our last stops, we visited the Proyecto Muraleando, a social project aimed at transforming an abandoned water tank into a center for art and music. Colorful murals and tile mosaics cover every inch of the tank and half the block.

An artist, thirty-ish with skin the color of almond milk, guided us through the studio and explained how the children in his community are turning trash into artwork. We walked through spaces that felt more like scenes from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than reality. Sculptures made with irons, toilet bowls, and hubcaps stand on the floor or hang from the walls. Upstairs, we drank mojitos and listened to a band play Afro-Cuban music with claves and bongo drums.

The artist was saying goodbye to our group when I saw a puppy sleeping under a metal sculpture. He couldn’t have weighed more than ten pounds. Just like the dog at Alamar, he had mange but not as severe. He woke when he saw the artist and approached dragging his back paw.

The puppy crawled up into a noodle between the artist’s feet. He was so close that he could have rested his snout on the man’s toe. The artist acted just like the farmhands and behaved as though the dog was a normal part of the landscape. That was the second time I had to actively work on numbing my emotions because every instinct screamed to scoop up that puppy and take him home to Tennessee.

I turned away and saw an alley across the street that looked like a bomb had exploded in the middle of it. Three dogs, two black and one red, were scavenging through debris. One of them held his front paw up and gimped on three legs. Another was missing patches of fur. There was so many that needed help.

I couldn’t hold back and asked, “Does anyone do anything about the dogs?”

It took the artist longer than a moment to respond. My question seemed to surprise or maybe offend him. “Nobody hurts them. And the people feed them when they can,” he said. Then he shrugged.

And I knew exactly what that shrug meant. It meant they had a hard enough time taking care of the people, how could anyone expect them to take care of the dogs too. When I had first arrived, my goal was to learn how a third-world economy affects dogs. What I realized outside that colorful, joyous art center is that Cuba’s poverty affects the dogs the hardest because they are on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Trash can be turned into art. Even a chicken produces eggs, but dogs have no economic value, so they come last. For dogs on that island, it’s survival of the fittest. The ones who are genetically strong will live, and others, like the puppy underneath the statue won’t.

Two days later, I flew home and tried focusing on the things I loved about Cuba, like their Afro-Cuban music, organic farming methods, community art projects, and mojitos. Yet, I couldn’t completely think about any of it without seeing a backdrop of poverty on such a grand scale it overwhelmed these few gleaming rays. And I still can’t picture the dog with the red ID tag without remembering the one at Almar or the puppy at Muraleando. I’d been warned Cuba was a land of extremes, and I saw the evidence of it over and over.

I was able to deaden my emotions while I was in Cuba, but when I got home they were waiting. There was a lot of guilt and shame for seeing those dogs and leaving them behind. I also felt frustrated because animals are dying of starvation and infectious diseases 91 miles south of Miami. The resources they need are a short plane ride away, yet unattainable.

Then, I focused on what I can do and funneled all my frustration into writing this post. The idealist in me has always believed and always will believe that if more people know, then more will care. And with that empathy comes change. So, I’m giving a voice to the Alamar dog and the Muraleando puppy and to the 40 others I saw wandering the streets. I’m telling their stories with the hope that if enough people care, we can make a change.

P.S. In a few days, I’ll be posting a few practical ways we can all help dogs in Cuba.


Farnival Update: Cuba

Hi y’all. I’m both excited and nervous because I’m leaving for Cuba Sunday night, taking a red-eye from Phoenix (where I’m working) to Havana. I’m excited because I’m going to learn about a new culture and get to practice my woeful Spanish. That whole tropical- island-in-the-Caribbean thing doesn’t hurt either. I’m nervous because I’ve never visited a communist country before, and I’ve already encountered some interesting restrictions.

In most impoverished communities, there are a lot of stray dogs. Cuba is no different, but they have an added problem. Rescue organizations don’t have access to products we can buy at any Wal-Mart. Flea and tick medicine, antibiotics, and heartworm preventative are at the top of their wish lists, but they also have difficulties getting stuff like gauze, syringes, and towels or blankets.

The interesting restriction is that when customs asks me why my suitcase is filled with Frontline, I have to say they are gifts. I can’t call them donations. If I do, they can be confiscated. I’ll be in Havana for a week. When I get back, I’ll update all you animal-loving freaks about our dog friends’ situation in Cuba. Wish me luck. And as always, thanks for reading.

A Bum and a Cat Named Jensen

Gary wagged his finger, motioning for me to follow him down the creek bank. He was missing a few teeth, stood at least six-foot tall and scrawny. He wore a camouflage baseball hat and blue jeans. It was right in the thick of summer, so the lush foliage completely veiled the creek’s edges. I was walking three dogs, but I still wasn’t following him down that bank.

He said he had planted a tomato plant. He wanted me to see it. The amateur gardener in me wanted to see what he managed to grow along a creek, but the 125-pound pragmatist wasn’t moving off the greenway’s paved trail. I shook my head. He flinched. I didn’t trust him, and it hurt his feelings. I felt a keen sense of guilt, said goodbye as kindly as possible and kept walking.

I’d known Gary for over a year when he asked me to see his plants. When I say “know,” I mean I saw him on the Springfield Greenway where I walked my dogs. The greenway connects three city parks and runs two miles in each direction. There was no way to avoid him because he parked his green Ford pick-up truck, dented bumper and smashed-out taillight, next to the baseball field at Travis Price Park. He pulled it onto the grass between two picnic tables, where a patch of trees offered shade. He stayed in the same spot from morning to night. It didn’t take long to figure out he lived out of his truck.

At some point we had started waving to each other. Then he had introduced himself, and we greeted each other by name, but that was as far as I wanted our relationship to go. Sometimes being too nice to a bum can get a girl in trouble, and I reminded myself about that very fact when I felt guilty about keeping my distance.

But for whatever reason, he wanted my trust, and he wouldn’t accept no for an answer. Multiple times he waited for me next to the trail with a gift in his hands. His body language, shoulders hunched, a shy and hesitant smile on his face, reminded me of the way young dogs get as low to the ground as possible when they greet pack leaders. Gary wanted to convey he wasn’t a threat.

One time he handed me a daisy, a wild one picked from the field across from the steel bridge. It matched the tattoo on my forearm. Another time he gave me tomatoes from his plants, then wild blackberries, then bananas and a marijuana bud wrapped in a cellophane wrapper from a pack of smokes. Close to Thanksgiving, he gave me a ten-pound frozen turkey.

“Where did you get this?” I asked. I’d never been gifted a frozen turkey before, and I really had no idea how to respond.

“From the getting place,” he answered.

Most of the time Gary’s attention made me feel strangely flattered and uncomfortable all at once. But, there were also moments it made me downright uneasy because it bordered on creepy. He knew too much about my movements. He mentioned when I missed days or when I walked three dogs instead of four. Even though I parked almost one mile away from him, he knew the color of my Honda and whether I was running early or late.

Sometimes, I walked through the historic district in town and avoided the greenway altogether because I didn’t want to see Gary. I didn’t want his gifts. I didn’t want him noticing days I missed or how many dogs I walked. And I especially didn’t want to feel guilty about not being nicer to him.

As time went on, more and more people I knew became friends with Gary. He was the kind of person who attracted a crowd. Mr. Dennis, the park’s maintenance man, spent a few minutes on his morning rounds chatting with him, so did a local politician. An avid biker named Barry occasionally ate lunch with him on sunny afternoons. Eventually, I learned Gary sold eight-ounce bags of weed, which explained why he attracted such an eclectic crowd. A pot dealer is everybody’s best friend in a state where it’s still illegal. Even with his popularity, I stood my ground and kept my distance.

But, one day my feelings about Gary changed, and they changed within seconds. He was standing next to the paved path, just like he did when he had a gift. In his hand, his callused, dirt-creased hand, sat an orange longhaired kitten. For the first time since I met him, I walked straight up to him. I didn’t think about the reasons why I shouldn’t. I couldn’t because that adorable kitten overrode all my instincts. Like a beagle on a scent, I couldn’t reason.

“Who is this?” I asked. The kitten’s eyes were emerald green, his nose as pink as a puppy’s tongue.

“This here is Jensen,” he said.

“Jensen,” I repeated.

The name settled comfortably between us.

“Where did you find him?”

“He found me,” he said.

I was standing closer to Gary than I’d ever been before. I smelled the booze on his breath, saw his cloudy, red-rimmed eyes, the broken blood vessels across his cheeks. This man had a disease. He was an alcoholic and had been for years. That’s probably why he lived in his truck and sold drugs at the park. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was Gary had rescued a kitten. It was all the proof I needed about his character.

From that day forward, Jensen never left Gary’s side. He acted more like a dog than a cat and followed Gary to the bathroom, the picnic tables, and even to the creek bank to check on the tomato plants. When Gary was busy with his acquaintances, the kitten played with walnuts and sticks and dandelions. He chased butterflies. He snoozed on the Ford’s hood or in the bed or under a tire during the summer. In the fall and winter, he slept inside the cab. When it was really cold, Gary pulled out of his shady spot so Jensen could sun himself on the dash.

As Jensen grew into a cat, my relationship with Gary grew into a friendship. On the rare occasion when he wasn’t parked by the baseball field, I worried and asked if he was okay as soon as I saw him. He never told me where he went, but he beamed when he heard my concern.

I met his closet friends, like Crazy Lou, Sniffer Johnson, and CB. They were all poor, unemployed, uneducated, and harmless. They all told stories of family drama, legal woes, and disabilities. Yet, they made me feel like a welcome part of a clique I never even knew I wanted to join in the first place. It became a ritual that when I passed them, they would all wave and holler my name. And right there in the middle of it all was Jensen. For the year he lived at the greenway, he became the park mascot.

I saw Gary and Jensen for one of the last times on July 4th. People were gathering at the park for Springfield’s fireworks display. It was early evening. Since it was a holiday, Gary’s crowd was bigger than normal. Like always, the group waved and yelled when they saw me. Either Gary or Crazy Lou or CB offered me a hotdog they were grilling on a hibachi. I passed on their generous offer because I was in a hurry. I wanted to get my pack walked before the fireworks started. Nearby, a group of strangers were setting up lawn chairs.

“Are they bothering you?” they asked.

“Bothering me? They’re my friends,” I said. And I realized it was true. Gary was my friend, and it was all because of Jensen.

Later that week somebody, maybe the people from the July 4th festivities, complained about the rowdy crowd hanging out at Travis Price Park. One afternoon as I crested the berm leading to the baseball field, I saw five Springfield City police cars surrounding Gary’s truck. When I inquired, the cops motioned for me to keep moving. The next day I found Gary’s mugshot online. He had been arrested for public intoxication and possession of narcotics with intent to distribute. I called local shelters, but nobody knew anything about Jensen.

I didn’t hear a word for two weeks. In those two weeks, I looked for Jensen every day, twice a day. Finally, I ran into Crazy Lou. She said Jensen had “done time” in the dog pound while Gary was in the slammer. She said it had been funny as hell to watch those cops wrangle Jensen. It took them hours. Gary and Jensen had finally been released and reunited, but both were banned from the park for “infinity.”

I was thrilled they were together again. After all, they only had each other. But I also felt a keen sense of sadness because I’d never see them again. For me, their relationship was proof about the unconditional nature of an animal’s love. Animals don’t recognize social class or material wealth. All that matters to them is how good a person is on the inside. I imagine that for Jensen living with a bum in a truck was the best life he’d ever known.

It’s been almost two years since I last saw Gary and Jensen, and I still think about them when I pass their empty parking spot. At first, the park felt so lonely I occasionally walked through town just so I didn’t have to see that empty spot. I often thought about how ironic it was that I used to walk in town to avoid Gary. After Crazy Lou told me about the “infinity” ban, I started checking on Gary’s tomato plants. They thrived for months. Then one week it rained so hard the creek flooded and washed them away.

Why Sea Turtles Need People Like Honora Gabriel

Mason and I swam with sea turtles three years ago. It was (by far) the closest I’d ever been to the reptiles, so I was unprepared for both their grace and their friendliness. The turtles glided through the clear blue Caribbean with an elegance that hinted at their longevity. Their family tree branches back to prehistoric times. It was an amazing experience, the rare kind where I entered a foreign land yet felt completely welcome.

This memory resurfaced a few months ago when Honora Gabriel told me she was spending two weeks saving sea turtles in Costa Rica. The turtles need help because six out of seven species are endangered, and we are the primary reason for their withering numbers. Think trash, fishing nets, and pollution. Multiple sources claim only one in 1000 sea turtles live to maturity.

Like every member in a well-run household, sea turtles have chores. In essence, they are the gardeners of the oceans because they mow the sea grass. Untended sea grass is like a weed. It kills everything. Turtles also keep the jellyfish population under control because they eat them. Plus, their hatched eggs leave nutrients in the sand that help combat erosion. Because of the turtle’s shrinking numbers, these chores aren’t getting done, and that affects the whole marine ecosystem. The Sea Turtle Conservancy put it like this, “All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.”

Honora is in her late thirties, petite with a mane of black curls. She’s a pharmaceutical consultant who designs programs that help patients get access to life-saving medications. She also blasts through every glass ceiling she encounters. The Charlotte Business Journal named her one of the “Top 25 Women in Business” in 2015. The following year the Mecklenburg Times gave her a “Woman of the Year” award. And in 2019, she’ll take over as Board President of Susan G. Komen Charlotte Chapter.

I’ve known Honora for over a decade, and I’d be proud to call her a friend even if she didn’t care about animals, but she does. And she does something about it. In December, Honora volunteered with Costa Rica Volunteer Now on the Playa Camaronal Wildlife Refuge. She slept under a mosquito net, chopped trails through the jungle, and lived on rice and beans for two weeks. And she did it so that we all get an opportunity to swim with sea turtles.

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, then you know the Farnival likes to pay tribute to everyday badasses who help animals. People that prove anyone can make a difference. Recent additions to our list include Gus Sims and Barbara Jamison. Now it also includes Honora Gabriel. Two weeks ago, I caught up with Honora and asked her about her trip to Costa Rica.

So….why sea turtles? 

I’ve always felt a connection to the ocean. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then when I went to Ithaca College, I met [my husband] Jason and we would meet everyday at this sea turtle fountain. It’s the place where our relationship grew. It’s also the first place he told me he loved me, and Jason ended up getting that same turtle tattooed on his arm.

I can’t say why, but I feel like turtles are my spirit animals. So when I decided to leave corporate America, and I did leave corporate America, I wanted to mark it with something important to me. And I decided to save turtles.

Coolest thing you learned about sea turtles?

They return to the place they were born to lay their eggs. The turtles can be thousands of miles away, but they still come back to the place where they hatched. This boggles my mind. For instance, say they are in Australia and they are coming to Costa Rica, how do they know when they have to leave? It really boggles my mind that they know when to leave, and that they make it back to where they were hatched. And turtles hatch from all over the globe. They are everywhere except the Polar Regions.

Can you describe where you stayed?

I’m going to liken it to a dorm at a scout camp because most people can relate to that. It’s a long building with concrete floors and walls. The ceiling is tin. You can hear the iguanas crawling on top of it at night. You can hear their tails. The windows are four-feet wide and kept open all the time because it’s hot, so we were totally exposed. We slept in bunk beds with mosquito nets. You are basically living out of your book bag.

I shared a bathroom with 15 other girls. There was another bathroom for the ten guys at our dorm. And because of the plumbing you couldn’t flush toilet paper. We had three toilets. Right across from the toilets are three showers. One didn’t work, water dribbled out of the other two, and it’s all cold water. Now, keep in mind, between the 25 people in our dormitory, we could only run water one at time. So sink, shower, toilet, one a time between 25 people. So, you had to warn people, “Hey, I’m showering,” or “I’m going to flush” or “I’m going to brush my teeth.” These are the conversations that occur.

What was a normal day of volunteering like? 

We had dayshifts from 9 -11 am and then between 3-5 pm. The night shifts were three hours sometime between 7:30 PM -1:30 am.

At night we patrolled the shoreline to find turtles heading to the beach or already laying their eggs. Raccoons are a natural predator, so we’d fend off the raccoons so the turtle could lay her eggs. Then, as she’s laying her eggs, we dug, stroke for stroke, behind her to make a parallel tunnel so that we could collect the eggs. Once we collected the eggs we took them back to the hatchery, dug a hole, and buried them. We also did hatchery patrol. If I was on this shift, I was chilling at the beach fort and every 30 minutes I checked the hatcheries. When the baby turtles hatched, we took them to the ocean.

The day shifts were manual, sweaty labor. We built trails at a nature preserve where people can pay to hike and see the hatcheries. If people come at night, they can see the hatchlings go into the water. It’s kind of like a National Park in the United States. The lead biologist was very focused on improving the trail system, and he wanted to make new trails. Well, talk about sweating your butt off. So, the people in the front go through with machetes, then we went through with shovels to dig the plants out or with rakes to rake the leaves, and there are a lot of leaves in the jungle. Ultimately, better trails mean more people will come to the sanctuary and that means more money for the turtles.

Another task was picking up trash and sticks off the beach. There was an amazing amount of driftwood on the beach, and that’s important to move because the baby turtles can’t crawl over it. We called that natural trash.

What made you angriest about the human trash?

The trash is so disappointing because it can get lodged anywhere in the sea turtle. It gets lodged in the their nose, in their throat. And there is so much of it.

There are so many straws on the beach. One day I was like I’m going to count how many straws I pick up in two hours because that will be impactful. I lost count after thirty minutes.

Number two is plastic bottle caps. I didn’t think about this before, but now I notice how many things have plastic caps. Think about it for a minute next time you’re in the grocery store. Everything we buy has a cap.

And number three is shoes.


 I’m not making this up.

Do you feel like you made a difference?

In my heart, I want to feel like I made a difference. But when I think about those two weeks in the grand scheme of things, I’ll say no. For example, one of my tour guides told me that he traveled from the Philippines to Costa Rica. He said what registered on his navigation system was an island and that was an island of plastic that resides in the Pacific. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That kills me.

What I can do is focus on spreading a message, a message that makes people change their ways because it’s the small things that help. You go to the grocery store and get plastic bags. Where do those bag go? It’s floating around in the ocean and it looks like a jellyfish. The turtle eats it. It ends up in his stomach, and then the turtle is dead. Everything in our life is plastic. I find myself refusing bags at the store or bringing my own bags. I refuse straws, which sounds like such a small thing but it’s important and anybody can do it. Just refuse a straw.

I bought every member of my family a book about turtles, so that they understand that everybody can help. For instance, something else people can easily do is shut off their lights. If you live on the coast, shut off the lights because all of those hatching turtles are going to gravitate towards the light instead of the ocean. And then they’ll die. So, my point is I hope I can make a difference by educating people about the simple ways everybody can help.