The perfect small pet might be right under your nose

I can’t remember exactly how this pet came into my life, but I distinctly remember it being one of the coolest, most interesting, and easiest critters I’d ever had.

And grew up with a lot of pets.

Dogs and cats, yes. But also chinchillas, cockatiels, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, gerbils, fish, a rabbit, a hedgehog, and an assortment of frogs/toads. Oh, and a leopard gecko. And a bunch of hermit crabs. And one impulse-adopted escape-artist shrimp.

(Despite all indications to the contrary, I did not grow up on a farm or a zoo.)

I loved all those pets, in one way or another. Some were friendlier than others, some were challenging to keep, and some became my best friends. No matter the species, all of my many pets had the best home I could give them at the time, and were all special to me.

But one tiny pet made a big mark on my memory.

The stick bug.

aka stick insect, aka walking stick, aka phasmid

Now, I am not a bug lover. Insects play a vital role in the ecosystem, sure, but I wouldn’t be too upset if I never saw another spider in my house ever again. Yuck.

So for me to keep an insect as a pet was a pretty big deal.

The stick bug – which, sadly, I never named – was highly cool. It was about 8 inches long, greenish-brown, skinny, and a dead ringer for an actual stick. When I could spot it, that is.

There’s more than one in here! How many do you see? Image: Phasmid Study Group

There are a lot of ‘pros’ for keeping a walking stick insect as a pet.

  • Walking sticks are surprisingly friendly. When handled slowly and gently, they don’t seem to mind being picked up. It’s hard to tell, but they might even like it, since they’ll crawl onto your hand quite readily. Like any animal, they can bite when handled roughly, but it’s extremely unlikely.
  • They’re super chill. They don’t scurry, dart, scuttle, jump, or fly. All they do is walk slowly in a non-creepy way. They have no interest (or ability) to infest your home if they escape.
  • They eat romaine lettuce. In nature, stick insects eat whatever plants are outside, but in captivity, a leaf of lettuce is all they need. Now, this is species-dependent, so you really must do some googling to make sure you’re feeding yours correctly.
  • They’re silent, odorless, and clean. Your landlord will have nothing to complain about.
  • They’re low maintenance. A stick insect will live quite happily in a well-ventilated 10-15 gallon aquarium decked out with twigs and leaves. Room temperature is just right for them, and a gentle daily misting provides all the water they need. Of course, you’ll need to remember to clean up wilted lettuce and refresh the environments once in awhile, but other than that, there’s not a lot of care. Arguably, walking sticks are the easiest exotic pet there is.
  • They don’t have long lifespans. Time to get real. If you’re not sure how much of a commitment you want to make to small pet ownership, you’re in luck. Stick bugs only live about a year.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) care for a cat, dog, or hamster, walking sticks might be just the ticket.

Best of all, they live wherever you do.

Stick insects live on every continent except Antarctica, and if you have a keen eye, you can probably find one in your backyard right now.

I did once. I have no idea how I managed to see this little fella walking in the grass outside my home, but I did. 

Do you see it?

Sounds awesome right? Read this fine print before you bring one home.

  • Stick insects are just as fragile as they look. Only careful adults should pick them up, and even then only as gently as possible.
  • Make sure there’s enough room for your bug’s environment, because they can get quite large. They like to hang upside down, too, so the top of the aquarium/terrarium should be mesh.
  • Purchase your insect from a reputable company. It’s not nice to take wild animals from their natural environment. On the other hand, non-native stick insects are illegal to keep as pets in the US, so do some research either way.
  • Important: If you have a pet stick bug, do not let it outside. Depending on the species you’ve adopted, it could be an invasive ecological pest.

If you do decide to get a pet walking stick insect, be a responsible pet parent (because it is a pet) and do your homework. There are over 3,000 phasmid species to explore!

But if you aren’t ready for that kind of commitment, just take another look in your backyard! You might be in for a surprise.

Harness the power of social media to fight illegal animal trafficking

You love animals. Of course you do! That’s why you love seeing adorable animal pictures on social media.

But if you really truly love animals, you’ll learn the signs of trafficking on social media and use those same tools to fight back.

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

I know, baby tigers are cuter than anything, and you’ve always wanted to hug a monkey. Cheetahs riding in the back of Lamborghinis is the stuff of your most envious 1%er dreams.

That’s why Instagram shows it to you.

You can’t help but see perfectly-posed animals sharing our human space, and want to keep one as a pet. It’s science.

So whether it was intentional or not, social media has become the biggest driver for international animal trafficking, abuse, and the illegal wildlife trade.

That’s right. Black market animal trafficking doesn’t just happen on the darkweb anymore. You don’t even need to turn on incognito mode because happens right in front of our eyes.

And we “love” it.

A recent study of YouTube videos showed that when people see human-exotic animal interactions, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive.

Today, there are efforts in place on most social media platforms to slow pet sales. In 2017, Facebook and Instagram banned the sale of all animals: exotic or domestic. Their seemingly-robust algorithms frequently flag harmless products that reference threatened animals in any way. (Try posting an innocuous item on the Facebook marketplace and describe the color as “ivory” or “mink,” I dare you.) This might make you think what you’re seeing has been vetted by the algorithm and isn’t abuse.

But it can be.

Photo by Bisakha Datta on Unsplash

Animal traffickers are smarter than the platforms’ AI. They’ll phrase things a certain way, use specific terms, or use posed photos that don’t tell the whole story. This is how they list wild animals for sale to unsuspecting people like you and me.

You’ve seen this practice, I’m sure. Don’t we all have some relative who talks about the pandemic as “c0v1d” or types “wax seen” instead of vaccine? The idea is to trick the AI into thinking you’re talking about something else. And it often works!

Many of these practices are just as easy to spot. If you see the phrase “baby tiger for sale” along with a WhatsApp number, you can be pretty confident that illegal endangered animal trafficking is going on.

Facebook is one of the biggest drivers for sales, but Instagram is where people get the idea of owning these pets in the first place.

Most of us feel like Instagram is the most picture-perfect aspirational social media platform out there. So when we see our favorite influencer snuggling with their ultra-exotic pet, we want to do that, too.

Instagram knows about this.

If you search a specific hashtag like #slothselfie or #petcheetah, you’ll get a popup telling you that animal exploitation is wrong. But it’s a one-click bypass to see hundreds of jealousy-inducing photos. Try it in another language — particularly Arabic, because the majority of cheetah trafficking takes place in Saudi Arabia — and you’ll see even more posts and NO warning popup.

Photo by Ahmed Galal on Unsplash

Cheetahs are in especially hot water right now. They’ve come to symbolize extreme wealth, so owning one has become the ultimate status symbol, driving demand for this fragile species up. Way up.

In 2018, The Cheetah Conservation Fund found that 1,367 documented cheetahs went up for sale between 2012 and 2018.

That’s 20% of the entire cheetah population. In the world.

One fifth of all cheetahs were for sale, and most of them on social media.

And that’s just the ones that survived trafficking long enough to get posted.

Yeah.

The ACCO found that most wildlife trading takes place in broad daylight for everyone to see. No cloak and dagger, just public social media posts.

So here’s what we need to do.

  • Don’t like, share, or comment on any images that you think portray an illegal exotic pet or trafficked wild animal. Instead, like, share, or comment on images of animals living free in the wild or being cared for by reputable organizations. AZA-accredited zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and reputable wildlife accounts that promote positive conservation and education get the green light.
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on touristy images of people snuggling with wild or endangered animals. It looks like an amazing bucket list experience, but it is abuse. This one can be hard to spot, since some of the hashtags and organizations putting them on look legit. These “encounter” experiences are often billed as humane or even as a conservation project, so many of us have fallen for this trap. But there are loads of humane wildlife tourism alternatives out there — support them instead!
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on anything that makes you think the animal (or a part of it) is for sale. Sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s not. Instead, report these crimes whenever you see them. If you think you’ve seen wildlife trafficking — including wild animals for sale, ivory or animal parts for sale, or abusive videos — report it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

But by reporting what we see and refusing to support abuse, we can do our small parts to reduce the demand on trafficked animals.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Make the world your skatepark

For a real challenge, get outside and away from the concrete jungle 

Skateboarding is an urban sport. 

Right?

I mean, just look at any city’s downtown scene. Even if there’s nothing built specifically for skateboarders, you’ll see them flocking to stairs, handrails, curbs, and concrete art installations. Anything bolted down or built up, really. The DIY concrete skatepark movement is so ingrained in skate culture, that visiting historic parks has become a rite of passage.

But what if skateboarding didn’t have to have such hard lines?

What if you could take your board into the wilderness for a realer experience?

If you thought cracked concrete was crusty, you’re going to have to get real creative, real fast when you try to boardslide a fallen log. Skating in nature demands innovation. 

It’s imperfect, will definitely mess up your bearings, and requires a level of knowing one’s limits that not every city skater can achieve. Creativity unleashed.

And yeah, not everyone is up for the challenge, just as not everyone has access to choice skateparks and skater-friendly downtown areas.

So some skaters who don’t live in big cities, don’t have access to skate-mecca plazas like Kulturforum, or have done Burnside so many times it’s lost its appeal (heresy, I know!) – they’re forced to head out to the sticks. Literally. 

Others just want to feel that connection between their board and the forest it came from.

Inspiration

The idea of skating in the great outdoors isn’t a new concept. Element’s “Nature Calls” is only the latest installment in the years-long trend of raw nature skating. It’s just that this one’s gained a lot of traction.

In just one month, this video’s had over a quarter million views on YouTube alone. Even more impressively, almost nobody in the comment section can think of anything negative to say about it.

In “Nature Calls,” Jaako Ojanen, Madars Apse, Phil Zwijsen, and other Element Europe skaters brought their boards to the Pyrenees to dig up a whole year’s worth of unconventionally – but undeniably – skateable spots.

They found bike trails. Aqueducts. Mountains. Desolate roads. Fallen logs. I-beam bridges. Breakwaters. Even a cactus patch looked like a good enough spot for these guys. 

The creativity in this film is next-level. Not every trick was one for the record books, but how are you going to skate down a mountain or across a frozen lake and not be considered a badass?

Even if you’re not a skater, “Nature Calls” (and the subsequent extended version) is highly jealousy-inducing. Between shreds, the crew took breaks to go canoeing, swimming, throw rocks, and bother a cow. Like any outdoors adventurer, they couldn’t help but stop in awe and take photos that would never do the real thing justice. 

One viewer said they felt like they were watching Planet Earth, but with skateboarding.

Brand purpose

Like practically all skate brands, most of Element’s vids are city-centric. This time, they’ve released one that embraces their.. ahem.. true nature. And if the rumbles from the skate community mean anything, “Nature Calls” has put them firmly on the cool list. 

Element is not a new company, and it’s had its share of critics. Some snobs who insist on a minimum level of gnar (and a minimum pricetag) will turn up their noses at this affordable, tree-huggingly wholesome brand.

But for those of us who are interested in breathing fresh air while we enjoy outdoor sports, Element is a go-to. They know what’s up.

This brand is doing its best to be ethical, environmentally aware, and nature-promoting. Their sustainability commitments, recycled collections, and partnership with National Geographic have earned them some crunchy brownie points.

As much as Element’s trying to pioneer ethical skateboarding, Cariuma beat them to the B Corp punch. 

It’s the very first certified B Corp skate company, and for good reason. Cariuma has made sustainability and negative carbon impact their priority, been transparent about their impact, and are actually participating in reforestation.

This is a big shift in messaging from the major skate brands.

Most brands have no comment about sustainability. There’s very little supply chain transparency and they have nothing to say about environmental impact. 

And yes, skateboarding does have a significant environmental impact

Deforestation is a serious global problem, and this particular industry is a contributor in a way we can’t ignore. Maple logging for skate decks, specifically, needs to be confronted. That, and fast fashion. Nike SB, the hottest skate shoe brand du jour, is working on lessening their environmental impact, so that’s good. But considering the immense demand for constant wardrobe updates, high rate of consumerism, and the broader community’s “edgy” low opinion of eco-conscious brands, this is more than an uphill battle. It’s a vert ramp.

Find your natural skatepark

Skating in nature isn’t exactly an anomaly, but it’s not easy to find groups willing to get off the streets. The most common idea of a skatepark is decidedly free of vegetation.

Most of the info you can find about off-road, mountain, wilderness, outdoor, nature, or forest skating is almost exclusively geared toward longboarders. Sometimes electric skateboarders. Probably scooterers, too, but by then we’re way off track.

If you want to skate outside, just find a spot and do it.

Urban exploration is wonderful, but there’s something extra special about rural skating. If rural means farmland to you, skate it. If it means deep forests, beaches, deserts, or snow ramps, by all means. Skate it.

Bottom line? You don’t have to be a concrete surfer

But there is a catch.

If you do decide to skate off road, be kind. Ride safely on bike and hike trails, and be respectful of the plants, animals, and geology around you. Don’t trespass, don’t damage fragile ecosystems, and if you’re in a park, don’t stray from the trails. And don’t crash into any pedestrians, either. 

And nature skating has the same rules as hiking. Go with a buddy, tell someone where you’ll be and when you expect to be back, keep track of your location, and bring a first aid kit. You’ll also want a first aid kit for your board because your bearings are going to be toast.

But there’s a lot to be said for nature skating. 

The silence, for one.

The challenge of making the most of the unknown.

The immeasurable, incomparable beauty of an untouched landscape.

Also, no cops. 

For more nature skating inspiration, check out these classic films.

Top 10 Awesome Animals that Inspired Me in 2021

As we finally turn the last page of our 2021 calendars, many of us are making our Top 10 lists to commemorate things we loved this year. Top 10 Best Songs, Top 10 Favorite Books, Top 10 Movies, and so on.

Those are all great, but I like animals. There are some pretty cool ones out there.

But I quickly discovered that I couldn’t simply pick 10 favorites. That’s too big of an ask! So instead, I thought about the animals that have ‘wowed’ me recently. Some have fascinating facts or backstories, others are weirdly wonderful, and some are just plain cute.

Have a look at all these animals that are close to my heart for one reason or another. Be sure to let me know which are your favorites, too!

Vicuña

I love the vicuña conservation story. Once hunted almost to extinction, wild vicuñas are now sustainably herded, shorn, and returned to their homes in the Andes mountains. This process is called chaccu and it involves hundreds of community members literally joining hands to create a human chain. The people slowly close the circle and guide the vicuñas to an enclosure so they can humanely harvest wool. Because this low-impact annual event doesn’t require domesticating vicuñas, the animals are simply released to the wild or dedicated nature preserves. Vicuñas’ extremely valuable wool supports the Peruvian economy and traditions, AND has increased the populations of these adorable little camelids. Everyone benefits!

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar waxwings are sleek (but clumsy) colorful (but drab from a distance) quiet (but incredibly annoying) and widely distributed (but often go unnoticed).


Also, they’re shameless drunks.

Vampire Bat

Yes yes, it drinks blood. Very spooky. But check out that nose! All leaf-nosed bats use their extra-sensitive noses to find their prey with astounding accuracy, and vampire bats use specialized heat sensors in theirs to zero in on blood vessels. Wild, right?

I had a close encounter with a (non-vampire) bat earlier this year which rather forced me to learn more about these amazing animals. I’ve always appreciated bats’ roles in the ecosystem and admired their unique skills, so as unsettling as the encounter was, it was a stroke of luck that led me to learning more about these amazing animals.

Walking Stick Insect

Unless you live in Antarctica, you’ve probably seen a stick bug without even realizing it. Despite its god-tier camouflage, I was lucky enough to spot one in the grass a few years ago! They’re very friendly, as far as bugs go, so the kids and I were able to pick it up and play with it for a moment before returning it to a nearby bush.

I haven’t seen one of these cuties lately, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking!

Okapi

Until 1901, okapis were cryptids. They have crazy looking bums, yet keep such a low profile that until then, most people considered them mythological creatures. Clearly, they’re real. You can’t help but wonder which other “impossible” creatures are out there just waiting to be discovered. The “jungle horse” is a great reminder to never stop searching.

Woolly Aphid

Woolly aphids are pests to most people, but I like finding these little cuties in my tomato garden. My kids call them fairies.

Okay, I admit it. I do, too.

Bobcat

Bobcats are firecrackers! They’re small, feisty, eat just about anything, live just about everywhere in the US, plus they’re cute and fluffy. What’s not to love?

I recently worked with The Felidae Conservation Fund on a research project to introduce these (and other!) beautiful cats to more readers. It was an absolute pleasure learning more about bobcats and putting them in perspective. Sadly, I found out that they live almost everywhere… except where I am! I’m holding out hope that I’ll see one from a safe distance someday — their numbers are steadily climbing nationwide and there have been recent sightings in my area!

Pufferfish

The “leave me alone” fish have surprisingly endearing personalities. Pufferfish are rather intelligent (for a fish) and can be trained to do tricks. How amazing is that!?

Poison Dart Frog

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the rainforest. I still am, but it was My Thing when I was about 9. Poison dart frogs are teeny tiny, ultra toxic, almost supernaturally colorful, amazingly varied, and are essentially the symbol of the Amazon Rainforest, so they’ve always been a favorite of mine. Whenever I visit my local zoo, I never miss the poison dart frog exhibit. No matter how many times I’ve seen them, I am always surprised how adorable they are!

Gray Squirrel

Squirrels. I just like ’em.

If you enjoyed this top 10, I encourage you to make one of your own! I’d love to see which animals inspire you and why, so please feel free to tag me in your post. Have fun and happy new year!

If Lisa Frank was tasked with designing a bird, it’d be the ocellated turkey

Most wild turkeys look something like this…

Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

Or this…

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

But then there’s this fella.

National Audubon Society

Meet the ocellated turkey — wannabe peacock and birdwatchers’ darling.

And one of the most flamboyant birds I’ve ever seen.

There are six types of wild turkeys: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Gould’s, and our prismatic friend. Most turkeys can be found in Canada and the USA, but the ocellated version lives exclusively on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their small region includes only a small part of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. 

And yes, if you visit Yucatan ruins like Tikal, you might get a glimpse of these seussical birds. They’re quite comfortable living and nesting near Mayan ruins.

Ocellated Turkeys at Tikal, Guatemala by Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Though I’m pretty confident you could identify an ocellated turkey without a description, this bird stands out in more ways than one. This species is small as far as turkeys go, topping out at 12 pounds for males and 7 pounds for females. They have neon-blue heads decorated with garish hot orange warts, but no dangling ‘beards.’ Both sexes are blindingly colorful with females only marginally duller and greener. As a bonus, these turkeys’ voices are slightly less obnoxious than that of their blander cousins.

Ocellated turkeys spend most of their time walking rather than flying and enjoy a buffet of bugs, seeds, and leaves in their rainforest homes. The ‘ocellated’ part of the name refers to eyespots on their peacock-like tail feathers. Considering the brightness of the rest of this bird, you’d be forgiven for missing that detail.

Tim Proffitt-White / Flickr

These vibrant animals are Near Threatened and declining, thanks to overhunting and habitat reduction. But all is not yet lost — the ocellated turkey fanclub is growing, drawing ecotourists and conservationists to the region.

With continued conservation efforts and increased awareness of these eye-popping birds, more and more tourists can hope to spy an ocellated turkey. For some, ocellated turkeys are on the menu, but it’s my humble opinion that they’re better enjoyed visually. Maintaining their habitats and encouraging sustainable tourism to landmarks like Tikal will help get this glorious bird back on track. 

In the meantime, check out this desperate dance our rainbow friend does for a bunch of females who couldn’t care less. At least his fashion sense is on point.