Proud recipient of a Genesis Award

 The Christian Science Monitor Weekly's cover story from Dec. 8, 2014.I was gobsmacked to learn this week that my December cover article for the Christian Science Monitor’s weekly magazine was granted a Genesis Award by the Humane Society of the United States, for “outstanding reporting and creative portrayals of animal-protection issues.”  The story explores a slow shift away from the most extreme forms of animal confinement, on U.S. industrial-scale farms. An accompanying sidebar looks into the international dimensions of these changes.

After Sentient Cincinnati’s last post went up two years ago (to the day!), other reporting work has kept me busy and far from Ohio.  A few weeks after Cave Trout was published, I moved to Istanbul for a season, where I reported from the gassy front lines of the the Gezi Park Resistance Movement in a photo essay and a series of interviews.  When I left, I moved to Boston to write for the Monitor.  I continue to work there part-time, which has allowed me to join the happy ranks of dog walkers!

To make up for lost time, here’s a smattering of animal-related science and policy stories I enjoyed writing for the Monitor’s science desk last year:

Are gassy cattle a bigger problem than US government thought? 11-26-13
Meat-eaters versus carnivores: Is your diet killing wolves? 1-10-14
A quarter of the world’s sharks and rays now threatened with extinction, say scientists 1-23-14
Snakes on a higher plane: reptilian flight secrets revealed 1-31-14
Why don’t you look more like a hagfish? Scientists offer clues. 2-13-14
Oil spills can stop tuna hearts, say scientists 2-14-14
It’s International Polar Bear Day. Why are humans so wild about fur? 2-27-14
Long-struggling California condor may soar again 4-25-14
Deep-sea virus hijacks bacteria’s DNA  5-2-14
How the dance of predation upends ecology models  5-7-14
Everyday ‘electrosmog’ scrambles birds’ magnetic sense, say scientists  5-8-14
World’s No. 1 pesticide brings honeybees to their knees, say scientists  5-9-14
Do biologists really need dead animals? Article inflames debate.  5-23-14

Cave Trout

Koi fish paddle among elm seeds, in a private Albuquerque pond.

Koi fish paddle among elm seeds, in a private Albuquerque pond.

During a stop on a cross-country drive this year, I watched a crowd of long, pale fish erupt from the surface of the Lost Sea, the hemisphere’s largest underground lake. They were rainbowless rainbow trout, and a young boatman was lobbing fistfuls of food at them, deep below a hill at the edge of Sweetwater, Tennessee.

They were not, he explained, native to the lake. As he spoke, a trout sailed past the ear of a teenager next to me, provoking screams and a lurch in our glass-bottomed tourist raft. Predecessors of these fish had been carried down through Craighead Caverns and released into the lake by people curious to see if they would escape and reveal a conduit to another body of water.

But they stayed put. And in the deep, lightless cave their eyesight and color faded and their sex drive vanished. Since the lake itself sustains no plant or animal life, the trout learned to swarm around visiting rafts and launch themselves into airborne food deliveries. “Now we restock them and keep them on as a tourist attraction,” concluded the boatman. A memorable end-of-tour splash.

It was unsettling to imagine their lives. Where rainbow trout occur naturally, they have a lot to do: they control dragonfly populations, forage, mate, host colonies of parasitic slime mold, feed bears and provide memorable stories to fishermen. They are bursting with nutritional and ecological value to others. But the trout of the Lost Sea were separated from every external life form, every meteorological pattern and almost every activity around which their species has evolved. They didn’t spawn, and after hours they had nothing to hunt, gather or see. A writer for Chattanooga Parent described them as “ghostly monsters.” Were they good for nothing more than spooking tourists into a gift-shoppy delirium? Seeing those wan cave dwellers sealed off from so much of their value to others, I wondered what made their lives worthwhile to them. Could any of a trout’s satisfactions remain unassailed by the indignities of a bugless, bearless, lightless, idle life?

Some of us feel that our own lives are inherently valuable, regardless of how much anyone else may cherish, need, hate or snub us. Whether we are social reformers, corporate peons or volatile drunks, most of us find the quality and continuation of our lives to be very important. But it’s hard to pinpoint what makes up one’s “inherent value,” and people sometimes use the term more emphatically than precisely.

Continue reading the full story in The Point Magazine »

Rapper Brother Ali on Privilege, Hope, and Other People’s Stories

In this exclusive interview, hip-hop artist Brother Ali talks to YES! about the personal transformations that have shaped his life and lyrics.

Photo courtesy Rhymesayers Entertainment.

Photo courtesy of Rhymesayers Entertainment.

Brother Ali is a politically outspoken hip-hop artist from Minnesota whose latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, rocks between despair and acceptance, anger and hope. His clear lyrics often beat a slow, sauntering rhythm, and his sharp critiques of American society are warmed by strains of soul, funk, and sampled historical recordings.

Legally blind and shuffled from city to city as a child, Brother Ali started rapping at age eight and used his gift to fit in and make a name for himself when he arrived at a new school. He started recording his music at 13, converted to Islam at 15, and got married at 17.

As he grew older he became increasingly political. His single “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” released in 2007 during the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, was a bitter critique of what he called a “billion-dollar-a-week kill-brown-people habit.” As the video went viral, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security froze a money transfer to his record label, and Ali says mobile network operator Verizon removed him from a scheduled tour they were sponsoring. In 2012, he was one of 37 protestors arrested while occupying a Minneapolis family’s home to fight against its foreclosure.

Now 35 and the father of two, Brother Ali uses his music and celebrity as platforms to speak frankly about class and racial privilege, and about finding the courage to confront injustice.

Continue reading the full story in YES! Magazine »

The “People’s Bailout” Was Just the Beginning: What’s Next for Strike Debt?

Thomas Gokey helped create Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee, which is preparing to purchase and cancel $9 million of ordinary people’s medical debt. Here, he speaks about the project’s origins, methods, and future.

Thomas Gokey executes a jump kick in a gallery, in front of three panels from his art piece, “Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper.” Photo courtesy of Thomas Gokey.

Thomas Gokey executes a jump kick in a gallery, in front of three panels from his art piece, “Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper.” Photo courtesy of Thomas Gokey.

Syracuse University art professor Thomas Gokey earned his Master of Fine Arts degree five years ago, but remains chained to his alma mater by $49,983 of debt. Soon after he graduated, the grim prospect of indefinite payments inspired its own art piece.  Gokey put his debt up for sale in reconstituted squares of shredded money from the Federal Reserve, which he called “Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper.”

The project got good press but the debt remained, and Gokey continued to think about how debt controls people’s lives.  This year, together with the activist group Strike Debt, he helped organize a bold “People’s Bailout” called the Rolling Jubilee, which has raised over $465,000 in donations.  Bringing that money to the marketplace where collections companies buy and sell debt for pennies on the dollar, Strike Debt intends to purchase about $9 million of Americans’ medical and educational debt—and then cancel it.

Strike Debt, which grew out of Occupy Wall Street, wants to foment conversation about the debt we rack up in pursuit of basic needs, and the industries that profit from that debt. Gokey is currently on a year-long unpaid leave from teaching to help organize the Rolling Jubilee and upcoming Strike Debt projects.

Fabien Tepper: How did you come to be interested in debt, and how did you decide to talk about it through your artwork?

Thomas Gokey: Well, I tend to make work about what I’m thinking about. And debt really controls my life—it’s just this massive burden. I came up with that particular project in 2007 to ’08, after I graduated from art school.

I was thinking, my diploma is just a piece of paper, and it costs all this money. And our money is just pieces of paper that are more or less worthless, but we treat them as valuable because they are “legal tender for all debts public and private.” So we’re basically passing around these pieces of paper with IOUs on them. And a lot of artwork is just worthless material, like a piece of paper with some charcoal marks on it. So part of what I got really interested in was, how do we put value on these priceless things?

Continue reading the full story in YES! Magazine »

Occupy’s New Offshoot Set to Cancel Millions in Medical Debts

Medical debt is the cause of 62 percent of bankruptcies, say organizers of Strike Debt, which threw last night’s offbeat fundraiser for their new “Rolling Jubilee.” Ordinary people donated enough money to collectively buy an estimated $5.9 million in bad debt in order to cancel it.

Revelers at the Rolling Jubilee telethon throw glitter after hearing that the group had raised enough money to buy $5 million in medical debt.  Photo by Stacy Lanyon

On the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from Zuccotti Park, celebrity and local performers donated their time for a “post-modern variety show” last night at Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge nightclub. They were there to raise money for what may be the most far-reaching project to grow out of the Occupy movement so far: a “bailout for the 99 percent” called Rolling Jubilee. Launched by Strike Debt, an offshoot of OWS, the Jubilee has begun erasing people’s medical debt by infiltrating the debt-collection industry.

Their tactic is to buy private debt the same way collection companies do—on the debt market, at tiny fractions of its original worth—and then cancel it in hopes of freeing debtors from their piled-up, defaulted medical bills. Organizers also want the action to bring debt servitude to the forefront of our national conversation.
Last night’s live-streamed spectacle, billed as the People’s Bailout Telethon, featured comedienne Janeane Garofalo, musicians Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, and a three-hour-long vaudevillian line-up of mariachi and magic, gospel and hip-hop, striptease and performance art. Comedy writer Lizz Winstead and cartoonist David Rees emceed the event, badgering a fluctuating online audience to donate money. With local Strike Debt chapters holding viewing parties across the country, there may have been close to 2,000 online viewers.

The event had been planned as a launch party for Rolling Jubilee, which opened its bank account on Friday, November 9. But as donations surged past the $250,000 mark—five times Strike Debt’s stated goal for the evening—the soirée took on the bubbly energy of a victory rally.

Continue reading the full story in YES! Magazine »

McKibben Spearheads Plan to Hit Dirty Energy Where It Hurts

Could’s aggressive new strategy bring an end to global warming?

Bill McKibben and about 1900 supporters raised their arms in support of the new strategy in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on Wednesday, November 7. Photo by Paul Anderson.

In a bold change of direction for the movement to stop climate change, environmentalist Bill McKibben and his global advocacy network unveiled a new strategy this week in Seattle: chip away at the power of the fossil-fuel industry through a large-scale stock-divestment campaign modeled on the one which helped bring down South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.

All 1900 seats were sold out in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on November 7, for the first stop on McKibben’s planned 22-city tour. The audience delivered multiple standing ovations as McKibben explained the strategy: to curb worldwide CO2 emissions and global warming by pushing universities and other institutions to purge their stock portfolios of oil, coal, and natural-gas interests. 350’s slogan for this tour is “Do the math.”

That math is simple but stomach-dropping. Global leaders who drafted the 1999 Copenhagen Accord—including leaders of the United States and China who are resistant to climate action—agreed that a rise of two degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Farenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures is the absolute upper limit humanity can approach and still avoid catastrophic climate change. In order to stay within that limit, we can emit no more than 565 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. But fossil fuel corporations already possess oil, gas, and coal that would release 2,795 gigatons of carbon if burned. That’s five times the safe amount.

“Eighty percent of that,” said McKibben, “has to stay underground.”    Continue reading the full story in YES! Magazine »


Robert Pace and Amy Smith address demonstrators outside Smith’s shuttered home during an Avondale “Foreclosure Tour,” the first public action organized by Occupy the Hood Cincinnati.

A Madisonville couple who have spent the past decade fighting against predatory Big Bank lenders which tipped them into bankruptcy and foreclosure, might see their case go before the U.S. Supreme Court.  As they push their cause, they have found solidarity in a new community of activists battling foreclosure in Cincinnati.

Ten years ago, Demetrious Smith hoped to buy a building and work as a landlord after a non-work-related injury ended his 13-year career with General Electric. But getting financed on the strength of his monthly $1,182 disability check seemed unlikely. Then a postcard arrived in his family’s mailbox from a company called National Mortgage Funding, which promised home financing for anyone.

Smith, now 57, arranged an appointment and swiftly got financed for a $109,000 mortgage through ABN AMRO Mortgage Group Inc., for the home he still lives in with his wife Amy, 53.

He was staggered to find out it was so easy. “On Social Security income?” he says. “I thought: This is a blessing.”

Continue reading the full story in CityBeat »

Breeding Ground

Pebbles spent eight years bearing litters at a Minnesota puppymill, before being sold at the Ohio Dog Auction. Photo by Konstantin Vasserman.

We’ve got three ‘02-model females,” the auctioneer began.

A seated crowd of bonnets and wide-brim hats peered down into the auction pit, where three small white dogs stood on a rug-covered table. A teenage boy held each one in place.

Auction lots 73-75, three Bichon Frises registered under the names Mandy, Crystal, and Pebbles, were shaking.

Maybe they felt cold, or maybe they felt scared. It was a January morning, their curls had been shorn off and until that moment they had been tasked with bearing litters of puppies in a large breeding facility known for its small cages, where they had probably never felt so many human eyes upon them.

Mandy’s ears froze into an odd crimp, as the auctioneer announced the starting price for her. There were no takers. The price dropped, then dropped again several times, and he gave up. Crystal, a runt, fared the same. The third, Pebbles, whose short legs bowed awkwardly around her tomato-shaped body, fetched a single bid: $5.

The three mothers were among 301 dogs who rode 900 miles last January inside cage-stacked semi tractor-trailer trucks, from Clearwater Kennel in Cushing, Minn., to the Farmerstown Sale Barn in the Amish town of Baltic, Ohio.

Continue reading the full story in CityBeat »

Sittenfeld’s Journey from Journalism to City Hall

Photo by Cameron Knight

In preparing to interview newly elected Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, I was repeatedly visited by the temptation to ask him, “Are you as squeaky-clean as you seem?”

I listened to him, then 25 years old, deliver a bright-eyed, five-minute distillation of a book he was writing on happiness, onstage at the Know Theatre. Later that year he began to frequent a café where I worked.  He was impeccably warm, courteous and dapper as I served his business lunches and coffee, and I wondered what he was all about.

For one thing, I find, Sittenfeld is all about writing. If any hint of a dark side reveals itself, it’s while he scrambles to think of a character from literature that he identifies with.

“Oh, man … I think it’s one of those things where, you know, you fall in love with characters despite their imperfections sometimes,” he muses, giving a shout-out to John Milton’s imagining of a certain charismatic underworld figure in his 1667 epic poem, Paradise Lost. 

After more thought, he decides on someone less controversial: James of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.

Continue reading the full story in CityBeat »

What the Frack? ~ opposition to “fracking” surges after tremors

Illustration by Rebecca Sylvester for CityBeat

A series of 12 unusual earthquakes in northern Ohio reached a 4.0 magnitude on New Year’s Eve, shaking homes in Youngstown and intensifying nationwide opposition to fracking, a controversial natural gas extraction process.

John Armbruster, a Columbia University seismologist hired by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), located the quakes’ epicenters near the base of a wastewater injection well operated by D&L Energy. One of 177 injection wells in Ohio, this one was greasing the palms of a previously unknown fault line, by pumping gas industry wastewater right into it.

In response to the finding, Gov. John Kasich suspended injections at that well and at four inactive sites in the same area.

Those injection wells dispose of wastewater generated by fracking wells, whose job it is to extract natural gas by blasting pressurized slurries of water, chemicals and sand into ancient shale formations, thousands of feet below ground.

Although it hasn’t been known to cause earthquakes, fracking — or horizontal hydraulic fracturing — creates its own problems. Ask Thelma Payne.

Ms. Payne, now 88, and her husband Richard Payne, 91, were asleep in their bed one night in December 2007, when an explosion in their basement blew their Geauga County home straight off its foundations. The couple bounced up and landed safely back on their mattress; the house landed back on its foundation, but was damaged beyond repair.

Continue reading the full story in CityBeat »