I learned about Wisdom, because she’s the oldest bird in the world and survived the Japanese tsunami―that made the national and international news. Abayomi is a story that was brought to my attention by the illustrator, Kitty Harvill. She lives in Brazil half the year and the US the other half. She and her husband Christoph Hrdina are vitally involved in conservation in Brazil and heard about the work of Sergio Ferreira and Marcia Rodriguez, Ph.D. Their expertise is puma (mountain lion or cougar) conservation, where they are working to create corridors for pumas to move from one wild place to another. Corridors are cutting edge environmental science, designed to give them ways to travel in a wider landscape, enlarge their range, and protect the genetic viability of a species.
In the midst of this work, came the story of an orphaned cub. As sad as the situation was, a story of an orphaned cub alone wasn’t enough. I had to dig deeper to find the story within the facts. For me, it was a combination the natural history of pumas, this particular moment in time when conservation corridors are crucial to many species, and the interaction of scientists and pumas. In particular, I was struck by one comment that came from my initial investigation. One plantation owner said that he had lived in the area for forty years and never seen a puma.
40 years! The puma were invisible. Nocturnal animals, they hunt, eat and play under the cover of darkness.
Then a scientist made the comment that the puma cub mustn’t get to know humans well or become dependent on humans for food. I realized that for the cub to return to the wild, the scientists must become invisible. That contrast sparked this story.
One of the things I love about writing nonfiction is the research portion. Tell us about the research journey for this book. Was it a straight path or did it have lots of twists and turns?
Research for this path started with an initial investigation of the events that orphaned the cub. The mother puma was caught in a trap set in a chicken coop and died. I had the actual coordinates for the chicken coop and looked it up on Google Earth. Yes! I could actually zoom down and see the chicken coop in the aerial photo. Then, I zoomed out to see the surrounding area. It was urban. On Google Earth, people often upload photos and you can click to see the surrounding area. One photo was taken quite close to the chicken coop, and showed a skyline of skyscrapers. These pumas were living within sight of skyscrapers.
I learned that around 2012, the world tipped: worldwide, we are now more urban than rural. Pumas living within sight of skyscrapers exemplified the problem. How can humans make room for wild creatures in an urban world? In this man-made landscape, where can wild animals live? Increasingly, I realized the importance of the corridor science.
Finally, I read and read about pumas and their natural history. One interesting thing that has allowed them to survive in the urban landscape is they are opportunistic eaters, that is, they will eat almost anything. Including capybaras, the largest rodent in the world and a common animal in Brazil. Capybaras are a host to a certain kind of tick, which carries Brazilian fever (comparable to the US Rocky Mountain spotted fever). Incidence of Brazilian fever has been rising dramatically the last 5-10 years. The complicated food chain―ticks, capybaras, pumas―meant that ticks were the puma’s friends. Conservation efforts got a boost because in order to reduce Brazilian fever, you must get rid of capybaras and for that, you need pumas. It was a round about research process and I spent time getting to know ticks and capybaras more than I wanted!
Finally, I Skyped with Sergio Ferreira to make sure I had details correct. He was generous with information and added details that I couldn’t get any other way. First-hand knowledge is always best for nonfiction.
Tell us about the teaching materials you have created for your books.
What’s next for your readers?
We are very interested in an American wild eagle or other endangered animals in the U.S. The key is that it must be one individual and there must be a compelling story. If anyone knows of an interesting eagle or other animal, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org