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Curiosity at Kester Elementary- Blue Bellied Lizards and the Wilderness Within

Over 20 small hands flew to the sky after students at Kester Elementary were asked who thought they could do more push ups than a blue bellied lizard?

“I know I can,” shouted a young student towards the front of the class!

“Well how many push ups do you think a lizards can do,” I asked.

My question was met with a puzzled chattering among students who guessed anywhere from 19 to 1,000 pushups.  They were surprised to find that I had no idea how many pushups a blue bellied lizard could actually complete. But the point of my question was not to calculate the exercise habits of lizards but rather to encourage kids to start asking the questions to which they have no answer and to not be afraid of discovering an answer for themselves.

Kids at Kestler Elementary proudly display their medals

Kids at Kestler Elementary proudly display their medals

Western Fence Lizard a.k.a Blue-Belly Lizard

To maintain high body temperatures, Western fence lizards climb toward the sun— scaling rocks, trees and fences— hence the name! More commonly referred to as the blue-belly, this reptile gets its nickname from the blue or turquoise patches of color that can be found along its abdomen and throat. If you spot a bright-blue colored lizard, it is likely a male, as colors in male lizards intensify to attract a female mate. On its top side, the Western fence lizard is covered in sandy brown, yellow, and light colored scales to blend in with their environment.

Like the blue markings, pushups are used as a mating display to show off the bold blue of their bellies. Lizards have also been observed doing push ups when they feel that their territory is threatened by an outsider.  When frightened by an approaching predator the blue-belly will detach its tail, which continues to twitch, to distract anyone who might want to make a meal of it.

Kids love to catch blue-belly’s, either with a little grass leash or by hand. When caught and gently rubbed on the belly, the Blue-belly can enter a hypnotic state for up to five minutes. But it is important to remember that if you catch a lizard, you must be gentle with it — wild lizards enjoy their outdoor spaces and you should avoid capturing a free lizard and keeping it as a pet.

Western Fence Lizard. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Western Fence Lizard. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

If I have learned anything from our school visits, it is that children have a natural born curiosity about the way things work, especially when it relates to the natural world.  Infants study their surroundings and it seems like young kids can ask hundreds of questions about why things work the way they do in an attempt to expand their understanding of the world. Sometime between infantry and adulthood, Western society encourages people to move indoors, meet production goals and spend less time with their hands in the dirt. As people move inside, the disconnect between humans and nature becomes more prevalent.

For this reason, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is grateful for the opportunity to visit with young students and remind them of their connection to the wild. Founder, Alex Havasi, explains to every classroom full of students that the wilderness begins inside of each an everyone of us. After all, we are made of the same salty water that you can find in our oceans and the same bacteria decomposing matter in the forests can be found inside our bodies. It is because of this special relationship with the outside world that we have an obligation to live responsibly and care for the natural world.

A special thanks to Donalynn Baba and Irene Dorsey, the teachers at Kester Elementary for encouraging their kids to explore the world around them!

Taking a Walk on the Wild Side — LA’s Wildlife at Descanso Gardens

Southern California’s wildlife is as diverse as the terrain in which it can be found. From native grey squirrels, to the western scrub jay, to a vast network of oak trees, native plants and fungi— California’s mountains, valleys and chaparral provide habitats for many living things. Varied landscapes and the close proximity of green spaces to metropolitan cities have been attracting human residents to California for centuries. As urban development increases, native animal habits continue to shrink and the interaction between humans and wildlife becomes more profuse.

This past weekend, HWF visited the Descanso Garden’s Sturt Haaga Gallery,  to view an exhibition entitled “Growing Habitat: LA’s Wildlife & Descanso— an enchanting exhibit that explores the relationship between Los Angeles wildlife and the human residents that share their space.

The walls of the Sturt Haaga Gallery have been decorated with printed information and blown up images that describe the trees, birds, bugs, and larger mammals that are commonly found in LA’s woodlands. Running from now until August 19th, 2018, this interactive display offers visitors a chance to explore wildlife through photography, video, and a number of engaging activities.  Along a corner wall, visitors of all ages can examine tree bark, leaves, and acorns through the lenses of a microscope. The powerful magnification of the microscope transforms what appears to be a simple piece of bark into bevy of furrows and grey lichen that almost looks other worldly.

Lichen is a complex organism made up of fungi and algae that symbiotically grow together. In the wild, you can find gray, green, orange or yellow patches of lichen on trees and rocky surfaces.


Lichen growing on a rock in Colorado, CA. Photo Credit: Lola West

Lichen growing on a rock in Colorado, CA. Photo Credit: Lola West

The exhibit, which is presented in partnership with The Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy (AFC), also features a giant floor map, nature journals and a video screening area where guests can view a short documentary that introduces a new method of capturing animal footage using sensor technology­. Highlights of the film include a candid close-up of a coyote that had no idea it was being photographed and a short clip of a mountain lion rubbing up against a rock to scratch an itch it could not reach.

Photo of Wilderness Journal at the Descanso Gardens

Photo of Wilderness Journal at the Descanso Gardens


About Descanso Gardens

Founded as a public garden in 1953, Descanso Gardens markets itself as an urban retreat of year-round natural beauty, internationally renowned botanical collections and spectacular seasonal horticultural displays— and we are in agreement!  On a late spring morning, one could catch the end of the camellias, a field full of Matilija poppies, brilliantly-colored cactus flowers, and a bountiful rose garden in full bloom. The garden itself is a buzz with life— from bees and lizards, to bugs and birds—this 400 acres of wild space delivers fun for the whole family.

Dinner Plate Cactus flower at Descanso Gardens

Dinner Plate Cactus flower at Descanso Gardens

Showy Penstemon flower at Descanso Gardens

Showy Penstemon flower at Descanso Gardens


Whether you can make it to the exhibit or not, Descanso Gardens allows guests to explore the ways in which humans and nature co-exist, and we strongly recommend a visit!

Learn more about Decanso Gardens here!

Growing Habitat: LA’s Wildlife & Descanso -May 21 – August 19, 2018

Venice: A City Underwater

Today, 2.1 billion inhabitants of developed and developing nations lack access to a basic human need—safe drinking water.  The United Nations cites “growing demands, poor management and climate change as major factors in water stresses and scarcity.” On March 22nd, the UN encourages the world to focus their attention on the importance of water. This year, the UN has expressed that the answer to reducing the floods, droughts and water pollution and delivering clean water to the masses, can be found in nature. Their nature-based solutions model aims to improve water security by mimicking the role of nature in water distribution and greenhouse gas reduction.

In honor of World Water Day, the Havasi Wilderness is shedding light on a water crisis which threatens to dismantle an Italian city that was established in 400 A.D.

VENICE, ITALY— Venice is a floating metropolis whose seascapes and glowing sunsets strike at the heart chords of even the most unfeeling individual. Winding waterways, seaside charm, and the magnetic pull of Venetian culture has attracted a bevy of artists and high powered merchants throughout its history. Founded in the early Middle Ages by settlers fleeing a Barbarian attack, early Venice was a settlement of small islands off the coast of the north Adriatic Sea. The 188 islands that comprise Venice today quickly became a town where wealthy merchants who traded by sea laid their roots. Alongside American Heiress Peggy Guggenheim and Casanova (a famed lothario) Renaissance painters Titian, Bellini, and Tintoretto each called Venice home. These days, the city of romance and awe-inspiring sunsets is sliding into the sea at a reported rate of 2mm per year.

This Photo was taken by Wolfgang Moroder.

This Photo was taken by Wolfgang Moroder.

A Day in the Life

Acqua alta (high water) is the term used in Venice for the annual flooding that occurs mainly in the winter. Before high tide arrives, the sea surrounding San Marcos Square laps gently at the edge of the second step of a stairway that leads tourists to a throng of water taxis who wait— engines idling— for their next passengers. Around 3 pm, the crowds outside of San Marco’s famed Duomo (cathedral) begin to thin, and unsheathed umbrellas announce the arrival of rain. When asked of the weather, Venetians who hardly batted an eye at the rain were keen to expound upon their unusual encounter with snow in the previous week, explaining that a mess of tourists spent their holidays slipping across snow-covered bridges and slick walkways.

As we take cover inside of the bell tower, rain can be heard pelting spaces of newly exposed pavement. Three hours later, storefronts close and restaurant owners shepherd visitors outside, warning them of the coming flood.  By nightfall, continued rain and the onset of high-tide has blanketed the walking paths in over two feet of water. Yet as the deluge washes through Venice, life in the historic city seems to carry on normally.

The Floating City

During the floods of November 1966, heavy rain, severe winds, 6 feet of water, and entirely unready population isolated the city of Venice for twenty-four hours without repenting.  Since the great flood of ’66, flooding has continued to plague the “floating” city of Venice. Though it has been decades since the city has seen 6 feet of flood waters, flooding has become more consistent in contemporary history. Presently, locals prepare for around 12 “aqua altas” a year. But the flooding is getting worse as the water level in the Adriatic Sea and Venice Lagoon rises due to climate change. The sea level alone has risen five and a half inches since 1900, according to city officials.



Venice after the worst flood in its history. Public Domain.

Venice after the worst flood in its history. Public Domain.

Since the 1960’s, a number of solutions have been proposed to rescue Venice from sinking a la the fabled city of Atlantis. One of these measures, the Mo.S.E. ( Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, or Experimental Electromechanical Module), involves the construction of 79 mobile floodgates which will separate the lagoon from the Adriatic when the tide exceeds one meter above the usual high-water mark. Plans to complete Mo.S.E have been scheduled for late in 2018, but residents are doubtful that the city will meet deadlines. Whether Mo.S.E. proves effective remains to be seen. As the city of romance sinks deeper into the ocean, it is clear that something must be done to save it.



Breathing toxic smog in the world’s most polluted places is like smoking 50 cigarettes a day!


The New York Times  reveals that 20 million residents in New Delhi, India are wading through the worst smog the city has seen in 17 years.  Air quality reports indicate that the levels of the most dangerous pollutant, PM 2.5,  have skyrocketed to 70 times what the World Health Organization considers safe (12 to 16 times the limit that India’s own government considers safe). Experts say that the damage from exposure to PM 2.5 is the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day.  The Indian Medical Association has declared a state of medical emergency, urging residents to remain indoors. But in a city where most do not have the luxury of taking time off of work, people have no choice but to risk exposure to the pollutants.

Some in the Gurgaon area near Delhi. By Saurabh Kumar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Smog in the Gurgaon area near Delhi. By Saurabh Kumar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 wikicommons

According to, PM 2.5 are fine, inhalable particles whose diameters are 2.5 micrometers and smaller. When inhaled, tiny particulates can become lodged in breathing passageways, triggering asthma and other cardio-pulmonary illnesses. A recent article published by the Lancet‘s Commission on Public Health indicates that pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today— responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015. These rates particularly affect low-income and middle-income countries where 92-percent of pollution-related deaths occur.  In 2015, an estimated 2.5 million Indian people died from exposure to air pollutants. With the annual increase in levels of air pollution, that number is only expected to rise.

History of Smog

The word smog is derived from a combination of smoke and fog (Smoke +Fog= SMOG — genius! )

During the Industrial Revolution, large cities like London provided the setting for the technological, cultural, and economic changes illustrative of the time.  In the early industrial age, British production depended almost entirely on a single fuel source: coal. Coal was used to warm homes, power steam engines, and turn the wheels of industry.  Though unregulated coal burning obscured the skies in industrial cities, it took over two centuries for Europeans to recognize the health hazards related to its atmospheric pollution. During the Great Smog of 1952, coal pollution blanketed the city of London, England in a veil of darkness that forced the closure of city streets, railways, and airports. In the span of one week, more than 4,000 people died from respiratory illnesses and policymakers were forced to act. In the weeks to follow, an estimated total of 12,000 people were victims of the polluted air.

Where does India’s pollution come from?

The Indian government faults emissions from vehicles, factories, power plants, and construction as the main contributors to this winter’s horrible smog. Since last year’s record-breaking smog, New Delhi residents have called for increased regulation and policies that would help regulate emissions, but progress has been slow. At the 2015 Paris agreement to address climate change, India promised to curb emissions by moving away from fossil fuels.  However, they face a great challenge as 30-percent of the population still does not have access to what is now considered a basic need: electricity. While the demand for inexpensive power begins to rise, areas within South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa— two regions of the globe with the least access to electricity— have become targets for renewable growth. But with renewable energy costs nowhere near as affordable as fossil fuel energy, one wonders how these lower-income areas will be able to move towards development.

Sulfer dioxide emissions. By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sulfer dioxide emissions. By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Let’s get one thing straight: air pollution is not isolated to India— it is happening worldwide.  China, the US, and India are the top three emitters of greenhouse gases, and while China takes the lead— if you examine the per capita (per person) pollution rate— the US more than doubles China’s emissions rate. Climate experts say there is no room for emissions in developing countries to reach the high levels that have been typical of wealthier countries. Fossil fuel generated electricity— the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide— would only intensify current levels of pollution. One potential solution for this growing concern came from the 2015 Paris agreement which responds to the threat of global climate change with the goal of lowering global temperature to  pre-industrial levels. The agreement recognized that the poorest countries cannot afford to invest in renewable energy on their own and has promised extensive financial and technical help to them.  As the US pulls its support from the climate agreement, it remains to be seen how much help will be given to the developing countries from other UN nations.

Busy street in Nepal shrouded in smog. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Busy street in Nepal shrouded in smog. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

In addition to vehicular and industrial emissions, the practices of clearing green spaces and burning croplands has also contributed to the decline in air quality in New Delhi. For farmers in India and neighboring Pakistan, crop burning is the traditional way to dispose of leftovers after their late-October harvest. Fire is used to quickly clear fields of wheat, rice and sugarcane for replanting and some believe the char is ideal for re-growth. However, the smoke that often rises over Delhi is anything but ideal.  During the winter, there is little wind and the capital is most vulnerable to toxic smog.

Rice crop burning in India.

Rice crop burning in India.


How can you help?

A fix to the greenhouse gas emission crisis that we face is not the work of one person. It will require working together on a global scale to implement changes. Here are a few things you can do in your own life to make a difference:

  1. Recycle waste, reduce consumption, REUSE! If you are going to buy something that is disposable, try to get more than one use out of it. Sew a small tear in your clothing and take your shoes, wallet, or purse to a repair shop before you decide to toss them.
  2. Participate in your local food system. Shop local farmers markets and CSA’s and help cut the estimated 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the production and transportation of food.
  3. Carpool when you can. Ride your bike. Walk to close destinations.
  4. Get to know the place where you live so well that you want to protect it. Attend city council meetings when an area is marked for development. Get involved and ask questions, such as how many trees will remain as green belt space to increase the   production of oxygen.
  5. Support organizations that work to better the planet.

Urban Coyote Conflicts

Growing up in the suburbs, my friends and I spent many weekend nights powerwalking through our neighborhoods, deep in conversation. It was an excellent way to process through our angst-laden teenage years while maintaining our physique. Though a few street lamps could be seen scattered about the city’s larger streets, the blackness of night was for the most part unfettered by light. In my youth, I appreciated this obscurity and reveled in the fact that most nights we had the streets to ourselves. One night, as we walked towards an intersection lit only by the red hand of the cross walk sign, we heard the sound of movement in the nearby leaves. Realizing that we were no longer alone, I turned my head in the direction of the noise and saw two yellow eyes peering back at me. My first thought was to run. My second was to scream. Ultimately, fear kept me frozen in place and silent as a mouse. The eyes grew larger and as the body they were attached to came closer, I found myself within feet of a large coyote.  I watched in amazement as the coyote made its way through the crosswalk, keeping within the lines.

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The Urban Coyote

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are smart. In response to shrinking wild spaces, these cunning creatures have migrated from their origins in the American southwest to nearly every corner of Northern and Central America (save for Hawaii). This forced migration has encouraged new survival instincts in coyotes obliged to thrive in pastoral and suburban regions as well as densely populated urban landscapes.  A coyote’s versatility extends to its diet, which changes based on what’s available in its environment. Typically, their diet consists of rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, insects, reptiles and wild berries. In the wild, coyotes generally keep their distance from humans. Yet, as natural predators and barriers of habitat shrink, the interface between wild and domestic begins to expand. Over the past two decades, America has seen a swelling of inner-city coyote populations. In that time, generations of coyotes who have never known undeveloped spaces have been born into metropolitan areas that lack green landscape. These native city-slickers have become adept at surviving in urban settings- foraging through dumpsters and compost bins, navigating crosswalks, and consuming small domestic pets. Weighing anywhere from 15-50 pounds, their smaller frames allow them an agility that makes hopping an eight foot fence in the suburbs nearly effortless.

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A Canine Confrontation

Every year, local police and wildlife organizations receive thousands of reports of coyotes disrupting the domestic sphere. For the most part, human encounters with a singular coyote or a small pack have not proven consistently dangerous. However, as urban coyote populations rise, reports of attacks on individuals and pets have amplified. In 2009, 19 year-old Taylor Mitchell died of blood loss after coyotes bit her while she was walking on a trail in Eastern Canada. Though not an urban attack, sensational media often draw from the experience with Mitchell to illuminate the perils of human-coyote interaction. Experts indicate that the keys to maintaining safety are to keep coyotes from getting accustomed to humans and to limit interaction. Hazing, the practice of scaring off coyotes with deterrents- shouting, clapping, blowing air horns, or spraying with water- is considered the basis of coyote management plans which seek to discourage coyotes from becoming too relaxed in their urban surroundings.  Pupping season lasts from August until January. During these months, protective mothers are more likely to act in defense of their dens. If you encounter a coyote at this time, the best thing to do is to slowly and calmly walk away without turning your back on the coyote. Stay tall and assertive as you leave the area, even if it means walking backwards.

This Way Forward

The relationship between human and coyote is extremely complex and warrants a deeper look. It is significant to note that human development continues to displace wildlife from their homes.  While property on the foothills is desirable, one should prepare themselves to encounter emigrant wildlife. The Urban Coyote Initiative is a group of photojournalists who aim to shed light on the lives and behaviors of coyotes living in close proximity to humans.  Organizations like these remove the mystery of urban coyote behavior and lay the foundation for a more harmonious inhabiting of shared space. You can see some of their work here.

Chaparral Coyote. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Chaparral Coyote. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.