Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hyena Science: For Kids!

As a kid, I grew up devouring any books I could find about animals.  When other kids were reading about Little Red Riding Hood, I was reading about wolf biology.  When other kids were reading Mother Goose, I was reading books about birds of prey that I checked out from the library.  I loved tales of wilderness, wildlife, and adventure, and I thirsted to learn as much as I could about zoology and the world around me.  Jean Craighead George, Jack London, and Gary Paulsen were among my favorite authors, and through their words they crafted me windows into creatures and places I could not see from the southern California suburb where I grew up.

Since books about animals influenced me early in life and nourished my interest in a career in wildlife biology (not to mention my development as a creative writer!), I am very excited to announce that a children’s book is in the works about Dr. Holekamp and the Mara Hyena Project!  Author Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop stayed with us here in Talek Camp from May 15 to May 25, collecting material for the book.  Below is my interview with this dynamic duo about their upcoming book, The Hyena Scientist, part of the Scientists in the Field series from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.

Amy:  Tell me about this book. What inspired you to make it?

Sy:  I’m the author of The Hyena Scientist. We’re writing this nonfiction book about Kay and the Mara Hyena Project for younger readers, grades 5 through 8. This book is not only full of adventure and excitement, but also inspiring stories about both people and animals.

Kay Holekamp is known as the Jane Goodall of hyenas.  She’s got one of the longest-running studies of a mammal in the world, and with such important findings to share with us all!  Some of the things Kay discovered about hyenas totally transformed the way we look at these animals.  And that’s one of the things we hope to do when our book comes out, is to show people what gorgeous, intelligent, caring animals hyenas are, not skulking, cowardly scavengers!

Nic:  I’m taking the photographs for this book.  What drew me to this project is that I always like oddball animals, the sort of strange ones other people don’t normally like.  Often when you look at things really closely, especially animals, they have all sorts of amazing facts you can find out about them, and hyenas seem to be no exception to that.  They’re quite complex social animals, and they’re not really the nasty villains people think they are.  And they’re very nice to photograph!  They do have rather cute faces and teddy bear ears and soft fur around their faces, so I really like photographing them.  And they have a lot of interesting behaviors to photograph as well.  And of course the ones we’re looking at live in the Masai Mara, which is a beautiful landscape with huge sweeps of plains and amazing thunderstorms coming over, so from a photographer’s view it’s just a great animal and a great location.

Sy Montgomery (left) and Nic Bishop (right) experience firsthand the joys of muddy roads in the Mara. Credit Nic Bishop.

Amy:  How did you get inspired to take this approach to conservation and educating people about animals?  For whom do you write, and why do you do what you do?

Sy:  Growing up, my best friends were always animals, so I think I might have had more friends than other kids I was growing up with, who restricted their friendships to just one species, Homo sapiens.  I write for both adults and children.  Every book I write about an animal is really a song of praise and a love story to that animal and to the people who also love the creature.  It’s also a plea for keeping the world whole.

Nic:  Although I trained as a scientist, I always really liked taking photographs, and I eventually decided to switch from just being a scientist to being a photographer of nonfiction books, of natural history books.  I started out doing books for adults, but I liked photographing oddball animals, like frogs and spiders and snakes and lizards, and people kept telling me that kids really responded well to these pictures. I was surprised at first, because I thought I was doing this for grownups, but apparently kids much prefer those pictures of the small little creepy things, and eventually a children’s publisher came to me and said I should really be doing nonfiction books for kids.

Nonfiction is not that well-represented in children’s books.  Kids get given a lot of fiction to read, but nonfiction is very important, and some kids who want nonfiction, if they can’t find it at the library, just give up on reading, because the library doesn’t have the information they’re interested in.  So that’s what I’ve done for the last decade or two – purely nonfiction books for kids.  I really love doing it.  It’s a great audience, books are a lot of fun to do and I get to photograph all my favorite critters!

Amy:  What advice would you give to children and other readers of yours who are interested in wildlife and conservation? How can they help animals and the planet?

Sy:  For young kids, I want to remind them how much power they have.  You can’t vote and you can’t drive, but children actually educate their parents.  Studies have shown that parents of schoolchildren get about 70% of their environmental news from their kids.  So children actually drive a lot of decisions in the household which deeply affect the environment: what you buy, what you drive, how many kids you have, and of course things like making donations, joining organizations, and volunteering.  All of those things really help, and we are far more powerful than we know.

Sy with our Talek West hyena, McDonald's, after we darted him on May 22.  Credit Nic Bishop.
Sy:  We can also be far more destructive than we know. The first step to fixing that is awareness of the damage we cause, but awareness doesn’t do any good at all unless you do something about it, and there is so much room for improvement that we can all do much, much better.

And for new adults, right after college or in college, I would say whatever your talents are, you can use them to help animals and preserving the Earth.  You don’t have to be a wildlife conservation biologist to do this.  On many of the projects Nic and I have worked on, people with completely different skills – artists, marketing experts, computer programmers, athletes – brought their talents to the table directly to help animals and the Earth.  There are so many ways you can use your abilities to benefit animals and the planet, and even if you don’t make it your life’s work, you can still channel a lot of energy into that.  And I’ll tell you, having spent my life recording and reporting on animals and the people who love them, there is no better or more fun thing you can do with the limited number of heartbeats you have.

Nic:  Remain curious about the things you’re very interested in. Read books about them to educate yourself, listen to other people interested in the same subject, study it, watch it on TV, persuade your parents to take you on trips to see animals, join clubs.  Feed your natural curiosity and passion, so you can hold onto those qualities even as you grow up.

Amy:  Thank you both so much for spending time with us here at the Mara Hyena Project and for setting out to teach young readers about hyenas!  The Hyena Scientist, a true tale about Kay Holekamp, the Mara Hyena Project, and Nic and Sy’s adventures with us here in Fisi Camp, will be in bookstores and libraries near you a year and a half to two years from now, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. I hope you’ll check it out!

Learn more about the work of Sy and Nic on their websites:

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