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Wild Obsession

The debate over the ownership of wild and exotic animals:

After a hard day of chasing criminals or a boring day of ticketing cars, Harrison would change out of his uniform and drive home to his animals. He always went to the wolves first. His body aching, his mind numbed, he’d let the canines come to him, weaving around his legs. He’d drop down on his knees and then lie flat on his back, the wolves clambering over him. “I would just lie there and let them lick me,” Harrison says, “and it was one of the best feelings in the world.”

Now the animals are gone. Harrison will never again own anything wild or exotic. He believes ownership of all potentially dangerous exotic animals should be banned and is working to make that happen. He underwent a profound transformation, his entire outlook shattered and put back together again in a new way.

PUBLISHED: March 21, 2014
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4312 words)

There’s No Place Like Home

Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor on living most of his life in one place:

When a man has lived in one place for most of his life, he walks around hip-deep in history. He sees that life is not so brief; it is vast and contains multitudes. I drive down Seventh Street to a Twins game and pass the old Dayton’s department store (Macy’s now but still Dayton’s to me), where in my poverty days I shoplifted an unabridged dictionary the size of a suitcase, and 50 years later I still feel the terror of walking out the door with it under my jacket, and I imagine the cops arresting my 20-year-old self and what 30 days in the slammer might’ve done for me. From my seat above first base, I see the meatpacking plant where those men wrestled beef carcasses into trucks and the old Munsingwear factory with the low rumble and whine of machines, and I remember an intense dread of spending one’s days at a power loom making men’s underwear. The building is today an enormous emporium of interior design showrooms, the place to go if you feel the urge to spend a hundred grand on a new bathroom, but to me it’s still the coal mine I was afraid I’d spend my life in. I think about this along about the eighth inning if the Twins are down by a few runs.

PUBLISHED: Jan. 25, 2014
LENGTH: 20 minutes (5197 words)

On the Trail With the First Skiers

The writer joints a hunting party in the Chinese Altay Mountains, who come from seminomadic Tuvan-speaking clans that may have been the first to ski:

Serik describes a hunt when Tursen skied down on a bounding deer, leaped on its back, grabbed its antlers, and wrestled it down into the snow, the animal kicking and biting. It is a scene that has been repeated for thousands of years in these mountains. Within the Altay, a handful of petroglyphs have been discovered depicting archaic skiing scenes, including one of a human figure on skis chasing an ibex. Since petroglyphs are notoriously hard to date, it remains a controversial clue in the debate over where skiing was born. Chinese archaeologists contend it was carved 5,000 years ago. Others say it is probably only 3,000 years old. The oldest written record that alludes to skiing, a Chinese text, also points to the Altay but dates to the Western Han dynasty, which began in 206 B.C.

PUBLISHED: Nov. 21, 2013
LENGTH: 10 minutes (2609 words)

Last Song for Migrating Birds

The writer investigates the killing of migrating songbirds in the Mediterranean and why there is little being done to prevent hunters from shooting the birds for sport:

"'It’s become fashionable, and my friends talked me into it,' the hunter explained to me, somewhat sheepishly. 'I’m not a real hunter—you can’t become a hunter at 40. But being a new one, and feeling good about owning a licensed weapon, a very good powerful gun, and never having killed any birds before, it was fun at first. It was like when summer comes and you feel like jumping in the ocean. I would go out on my own and drive up into the hills for an hour. We don’t have well-identified protected areas, and I’d shoot whatever I could. It was spontaneous. But it gets less joyful when you think about the animals you’re killing.'

"'Yes, what about that?' I said.

"The hunter frowned. 'I feel very uncomfortable with the situation. My friends are saying it now too: ‘There are no birds; we walk for hours without seeing any.’ It’s really scary. At this point I’d be happy if the government put a stop to all hunting for two years—no, five years—to let the birds recover.'"
PUBLISHED: July 1, 2013
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5662 words)

Maxed Out on Everest

Too many inexperienced climbers are attempting to scale Mount Everest. A few are losing their lives, and many others are littering the mountain with garbage:

"Everest has always been a trophy, but now that almost 4,000 people have reached its summit, some more than once, the feat means less than it did a half century ago. Today roughly 90 percent of the climbers on Everest are guided clients, many without basic climbing skills. Having paid $30,000 to $120,000 to be on the mountain, too many callowly expect to reach the summit. A significant number do, but under appalling conditions. The two standard routes, the Northeast Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are not only dangerously crowded but also disgustingly polluted, with garbage leaking out of the glaciers and pyramids of human excrement befouling the high camps. And then there are the deaths. Besides the four climbers who perished on the Southeast Ridge, six others lost their lives in 2012, including three Sherpas.

"Clearly the world’s highest peak is broken. But if you talk to the people who know it best, they’ll tell you it’s not beyond repair."
PUBLISHED: May 17, 2013
LENGTH: 10 minutes (2649 words)

Fertilized World

How modern fertilizer, and the nitrogen in it, have led to bountiful harvests with a larger environmental cost. Scientists are trying to find a balance:

"The nitrogen dilemma is most starkly visible in China, a country that loves its food and worries that supplies might run out. To the casual visitor, that anxiety seems misplaced. There’s a feast, it seems, on every street. In a restaurant called San Geng Bi Feng Gang, on the outskirts of Nanjing, I watch with wonder as dishes parade by: steamed fish, fried mutton chops, chrysanthemum-leaf-and-egg soup, a noodle dish made from sweet potatoes, fried broccoli, Chinese yams, steaming bowls of rice.

"'Did you always eat this well?' I ask Liu Tianlong, an agricultural scientist who’s introducing me to farmers nearby.

"His boyish smile fades, and for a second he looks grim. 'No,' he says. 'When I was young, you were lucky to get three bowls of rice.'"
PUBLISHED: April 24, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2929 words)

Breaking the Silence

Zimbabwean activists are fighting against the violence and oppression their country has felt under president Robert Mugabe, who was named Foreign Policy's "second worst dictator in the world," after North Korea's late leader Kim Jong Il:

"Mazvarira was abducted in 2000 from her home in Chivhu, a small town south of Harare, and raped by two ZANU-PF CIO officers after her 17-year-old daughter, an MDC organizer, was killed by a petrol bomb. Mazvarira contracted HIV from the assault. 'They told me, ‘You and your daughter are Tsvangirai’s bitches.’' When Mazvarira went to the police station to report the attack, the officer in charge refused to hear her case. 'The police are only ZANU-PF,' she said.

"The two women are not placid about what happened to them, but what converted them from victims into activists is that they were never able to hold their attackers to account. 'The government won’t help us. No one can help us. It is up to us, ourselves, now. That is where we are.' In 2009 Munengami launched Doors of Hope, a nonprofit organization that supports and speaks for victims of politically motivated rape. Doors of Hope now has 375 members from all over the country. 'We are standing for women,' Munengami said. 'Those so-called war vets raped so many women during the liberation struggle, but they don’t want to talk about it. So we are going to talk about it. Whether it’s 1975, or now, we don’t want this to continue. We have had enough. We are sick and tired of being quiet. Where has silence got us?'"
PUBLISHED: April 15, 2013
LENGTH: 10 minutes (2744 words)

Bringing Them Back to Life

Scientists have made advances in cloning procedures that would conceivably allow them to bring back extinct species. But is "de-extinction" something humans should be doing?

"Other scientists who favor de-extinction argue that there will be concrete benefits. Biological diversity is a storehouse of natural invention. Most pharmaceutical drugs, for example, were not invented from scratch—they were derived from natural compounds found in wild plant species, which are also vulnerable to extinction. Some extinct animals also performed vital services in their ecosystems, which might benefit from their return. Siberia, for example, was home 12,000 years ago to mammoths and other big grazing mammals. Back then, the landscape was not moss-dominated tundra but grassy steppes. Sergey Zimov, a Russian ecologist and director of the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy in the Republic of Sakha, has long argued that this was no coincidence: The mammoths and numerous herbivores maintained the grassland by breaking up the soil and fertilizing it with their manure. Once they were gone, moss took over and transformed the grassland into less productive tundra."
PUBLISHED: March 17, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3657 words)

'We Gained Hope.' The Story of Lilly Grossman’s Genome

A couple has trouble finding a treatment for their 13-year-old daughter's undiagnosed illness. Sequencing her genome provided a promising path to an answer:

"The family has a mantra: It’s a marathon not a sprint. They were battle-hardened from a long road of possible fixes and disappointments. 'We thought: This is great but it’s probably just going to be another data point that we add to the binder,' says Steve. 'Lilly’s already had a lot of bad news in her life,' says Gay. 'Her biggest fear was that we wouldn’t find anything. Not knowing would be the worst thing.'"
PUBLISHED: March 11, 2013
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3222 words)