Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: Death at SeaWorld By David Kirby

David Kirby has done it again.  He never disappoints!  Death at SeaWorld is eye-opening and is sure to be a bestseller.  I was fortunate enough to already have an opportunity to read this book, published by St. Martin's Press, scheduled to be released this coming week.  I cannot urge you strongly enough to get a copy - it is a game changer.

I grew up outside of Cleveland, Ohio and about a half hour from where I lived was a park called SeaWorld.  The 'burbs of Cleveland seem an unlikely spot for a such a park, but there it was, in Aurora, Ohio.  Usually several times a summer, from the time I was very young, we'd venture, first as a family and then when I was a teen, sometimes with my friends, to SeaWorld.  One of the highlights, of course, was the Shamu, the Killer Whale, show.  The stands were always packed.  People vied to be chosen as the guest who would get a kiss from Shamu.  We'd pet dolphins and other animals, even penguins (hint, if you have long hair, tie it back before penguin encounters - it is intriguing to them and once they clamp on they don't want to let go - personal experience!) when they had "Winterfest" - trying to capitalize on the long Ohio winters (making this SeaWorld unusual given their other, much warmer locations).  Frankly, as a child, I never gave much thought to whether this was good for the animals or not.  Heck, the dolphins always looked happy, right (they have no choice, this is a facial feature of certain dolphins)?

As an adult, I came to understand, on some vague level, that marine animal parks like SeaWorld, were not the appropriate environments for many of their inhabitants.  I have not taken my own child to a SeaWorld.  His experience with these animals has been limited to several visits to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium - an animal rescue and rehab facility - and home to Winter, made famous in the movie Dolphin Tale.

However, it was not until reading Death at SeaWorld that I gained a fuller understanding of WHY.  In a masterful style, the author introduces us to a key characters, including some of the whales, trainers/former trainers, scientists and others, and illuminates the issues in the debate over killer whale captivity through these personal stories.  Mr. Kirby's use of the personal narrative, effective in both Evidence of Harm and Animal Factory, may be at its most engaging here.  The book reads like a thriller, a personal journal, a scientific primer, solid investigative journalism and more - all rolled into one.

David Kirby's treatment is both multi-faceted and in-depth.   He clearly does his homework before writing on a topic, and this research shows in a well-honed, thoughtful and thought-provoking finished work.  It is not easy to broadly cover a subject with so many nuances and not gloss over important issues, but Kirby succeeds, raising his work to a higher level.  As a result, readers are given a truly comprehensive understanding of the issues in the debate.  Without understanding, for example, the different types of killer whales that inhabit the planet and the unique sociological behaviors and familial ties of these animals, it is impossible to fully appreciate why captivity is not only dangerous for the whales and the humans who work with them, but heartbreaking as well.  Despite the many threads to this story, it does not unravel.  The reader does not lose track of the key events, and segues into areas such as marine biology, animal behavior and others, serve to illuminate, not distract, from the overall theme.

David Kirby does not shy away from controversial topics, such as vaccines and factory farming, and here takes on animal theme parks - an established feature in the landscape of late 20th/early 21st century America - and shows us their darker and more dangerous side.  I appreciate that, unlike many journalists today, Mr. Kirby truly investigates controversial issues, does not accept superficial explanations, and delves to understand and to share with his readers, difficult but important topics.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Autism is an Iceberg

My good friend Ginger Taylor posted today on her blog, Adventures In Autism, about an article written by Rick Jones and  published in CFO magazine entitled, "The Value of Life: Why an ethically complicated calculation can help determine the value of your company’s risk reduction programs."  WHAT????  Read Ginger's post for a beautifully rendered analysis of the article, pointing out the problems with some its assumptions but, bottom line, what Mr. Jones writes is:

"The lives saved and dollar benefits from vaccines are hard to calculate, but it’s safe to say that these and other immunizations have greatly improved the quantity and quality of life for millions of people -- at the tragic, yet accepted cost of a few. "

 Yes, he acknowledges that children will be harmed by the vaccine program and he is willing to stand up and say outright that that is acceptable.   While it is disturbing to read in print that someone believes it is knowingly acceptable to harm children, at least he is being honest in his acknowledgement

One of the issues that Ginger points out and that Jones does not address and which should have been considered in his analysis is the chronic health crisis among America's children.  In a recent article, based on a 2007 survey, the authors found that, 43% of children had at least one of 20 assessed chronic health problems, and when obesity and risk of developmental delay were included, that percentage exceeded 54%! Moreover, 45% of children with one condition had at least a second - meaning that almost 20% of children had at least two chronic health conditions assessed in the study.

More than half of this country's children are ill and those charged with protecting our public health do not seem particularly curious - let alone panicked -  as to why?  Alarm bells should be ringing!  This is like the Titanic.... and autism is the iceberg.  They see autism and think they can avoid or ignore it but they don't have a clue as to what is hiding beneath - or here, hiding in plain sight.  Here's a handy graphic (pardon my admittedly lame art  skills, but thank goodness for SketchBook Pro on my iPad) showing all those conditions...

Sadly, I am guessing that many children have more than one or two of these conditions.  When I look at it, I count several for my own son - at least 5 diagnoses he carries in addition to ASD and I am not including speech and developmental delay (I will throw a bone and subsume, for my child, those issues under ASD), and two others that may be applicable.  This is not my idea of a fun game.  Ooooh who gets the most chronic illnesses - ME ME ME!  There is no winner here and our children are the big losers.  No potential cause - including vaccines - should be ruled out as a contributing factor to this epidemic of chronic illness without serious investigation.  And for those who baldly claim that vaccines have been vindicated - I urge you to take a hard look at the science - it does not support that position.  This is still an open question.  Read Vaccine Epidemic (full disclosure - I am a contributing editor and author) and watch "The Greater Good."  Ask yourself - what is the greater good if more than half our children are being harmed by something(s)?  Why are we not racing to identify the cause or causes of rampant chronic illness?  What does that say about our society and our willingness (or lack thereof) to protect the most vulnerable?  And what does our future bode as a generation of chronically ill children struggle to compete in an ever more challenging world economic climate?

Those of us in the autism community have been struggling with many of these questions for years, and now we watch families of young people in LeRoy, NY struggling with a mystery illness.  So many are willing to dismiss their illness and give an easy diagnosis that does not take a serious look at causation.  Yet, because these families are standing up and others are taking notice, we are learning  about potential environmental causes for the these symptoms that so many in power - including their own school officials - are willing to ignore or are affirmatively refusing to consider.  The autism families, the Le Roy families, and every family with a chronically ill child should continue to demand answers.

I was reading Oprah's magazine today and she had a feature about defining yourself  in 6 words (inspired by Larry Smith).  I have been pondering my 6 today.  Right now, I am feeling: "Stand Tall.  Be Heard.  Demand Accountability."  I hope that you are feeling it too!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sugar, Sugar... or, Shall I Say, Coconut Sugar

Wow, I cannot believe how long it has been since I have posted.  If you could see me now, I am kneeling, begging an apology.  I am resolving (well at least January is not over yet) to write a post at least once a week.  Short or long, profound or frivolous... gotta get back in the habit.  There is much to write about and I hope to devote space to some serious issues - especially issues regarding autism, in upcoming posts.  But today, I am thinking about coconut sugar. 

Lots of sugar everywhere we look!
We all KNOW that we should avoid most sugars, not just high fructose corn syrup.  Sugar is loaded into way too many foods and beverages. 

However, for some things sugar is, if not necessary, at least preferred.  A cookie is one of those things.  We don't eat many cookies here - not because I don't love them, I do, but H does not.  And I am hard-pressed to justify making cookies just for me when my 11-year old doesn't want them.  But over the holidays I made ginger cookies from a recipe at Elana's Pantry - a wonderful source of gluten-free, paleo-friendly cooking.  As a bonus, Elana's Pantry is a treasure trove of gluten- and dairy-free recipes appropriate for many Jewish holidays (but great for anyone, not just those who celebrate Jewish holidays) - today there were even recipes posted for Tu B'shevat

Back to those cookies...

I was going to a holiday party for the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy - a great non-profit on whose board I sit -and, among the foods we were all contributing, I wanted to make sure there were some (hopefully) yummy gluten-free holiday cookies.  I turned to Elana's Pantry and was rewarded with an easy and yummy almond flour based gingersnap recipe

Here is some of my coconut collection!
The one ingredient that was unfamiliar was coconut sugar.  Coconut sugar?  Huh?  Luckily, in short order was able to provide me with Sweet Tree organic coconut palm sugar!  This sugar is not made from the coconuts themselves but from the sap of coconut nut palm tree buds so if you are worried about imparting coconut flavor to everything, no worries.  I thought I was pretty well-versed in coconut products - coconut oil (of course), coconut water and milk (even coconut-based kefir), coconut flour, coconut syrup, and coconut vinegar (both from coconut water and from the sap).  Coconut sugar had, however, flown under my radar.

I apparently am behind the eight-ball on this one!  The good folks at EasyEats wrote about the benefits of coconut sugar just a few weeks ago.  According to them, it is only 9% fructose and it has a lower glycemic index than even agave.  Plus it has B vitamins and minerals, and it is even pretty environmentally friendly to grow.  Natural News reported on the benefits of coconut sugar and how it is displacing agave several months ago.

Taste-wise, coconut sugar is pleasant and easily can substitute for refined sugar.  While I like honey, I try not to overuse it and concerns about agave sourcing and processing have me mostly avoiding that as well.  I just cannot take the aftertaste of stevia (and I have tried many and, at least for me, they just don't work).  Lo Han is ok but not my favorite.  (Not even mentioning the artificial things here - we give those a wide berth).  So, in moderation, coconut sugar may be a good choice when you need a little sweetness in your life!